1979 Glace Bay Disaster

On Saturday, February 24, 1979 at approximately 4:10 AM[1] an explosion occurred in the No. 26 Colliery in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. The mine was owned by the Cape Breton Development Corporation or Devco.[2] The explosion originated nine kilometres from the pithead, about 700 meters under the Atlantic ocean,[3] on the No. 12 southern section.[4] A miner on the surface first felt the concussion of the blast at the time of the explosion, leading him to contact the mine manager.[5] Sixteen miners were working in the mine at the time of the explosion.[6] By 4:50 AM rescuers had reached the site of the explosion and found ten dead and six injured.[7] They also found evidence of extreme heat within the mine, such as melted metal and scorched wire insulation.[8] The injured were immediately removed and the bodies were all brought up by 12:00 PM that day.[9] At first the dead seemed to have been killed by the force of the blast,[10] however, other reports suggest that gas poisoning was the primary cause of death.

The injured had received burns on 40% to 90% of their bodies and were rushed to hospital. Three on them were in a coma, and all were in serious condition.[11] They were originally going to be transported to Glace Bay Community Hospital and and then flown from there to Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. However, poor weather (freezing rain and fog) grounded helicopters and the injured were transported by ambulance instead.[12] Two of the injured would die later, one on March 8, 1979,[13] and the other on March 22, 1979,[14] bringing the total death count to 12.[15] The deaths of these last two men were attributed not to their burns but to carbon monoxide poisoning.[16]

At first the cause of the explosion was unclear. Either methane or coal dust being ignited could have caused the blast. However it was felt by many miners that the blame rested with mine management for lacking the ventilation to cope with a 24 hour schedule during which the gasses had no time to disperse.[17] However the commission of Inquiry into the explosion reported that the blast was most likely ignited by “incendive [sic] sparking produced by the action of the shearer’s steel picks which continued to cut for five seconds into a high ignition potential type of quartzitic sandstone.”[18] These sparks ignited a pocket of methane released from the coal during mining. The ensuing explosion was magnified when it ignited the loose coal dust in the mine. The explosion continued until stopped by stone dust and a lack of fuel. No fire burned after the explosion.[19]

The inquiry found that the mine had adequate safety precautions and that there was nothing to indicate unsafe conditions. The mine had passed routine safety examinations before the shift started. Methane detectors were operating and detected no build up of gas. Ventilation was adequate, and was in fact better than in previous months. Nothing unusual was reported.[20] However, the mine lacked rigorous safety protocols and due to a long time without accident in the mine, those protocols that were in place were loosely followed and enforced. Therefore there was not enough stone dust thrown down, safety precautions were fewer in areas where no issues had occurred before, and cases of sparking were responded to with less urgency given that previous occurrences had never ignited.[21] Overall safety precautions were lax, allowing the explosion to occur, however Devco was not solely responsible for this. The company defended itself successfully against any accusations of wrongdoing.[22] The inquiry made a number of recommendations to improve safety.[23]

Within two to three days of the explosion, the other mines owned by Devco in the Glace Bay area resumed production, as did all sections of the No. 26 colliery save the No. 12 southern section. The work resumed cautiously, with normal procedures.[24] The No. 12 southern section was carefully examined by investigators from the National Coal Board from London, England at the request of the company and inquiry. It was also looked at by provincial and industry personnel. That section of the mine was not reopened for two months, and only after new ventilation, methane detection, and other improvements were installed.[25]

Between them, the dead men left behind twelve wives[26] and 24 children.[27] The widows and their families received monetary compensation for their losses from the company (it’s an interesting point that they received, according to the contracts their husbands had with Devco, $1,500 when the mine reopened), the provincial workers board, and the Canadian Pension plan. [28] The Miners Memorial Fund also managed to raise about $123,000 for the families.[29].

[1] Commission of Inquiry ( 1980) Appendices to Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, February 24, 1979, Halifax: Commission of Inquiry; Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, 1979, Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, iii.

[2] Commission of Inquiry ( 1980) Appendices to Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, February 24, 1979, Halifax: Commission of Inquiry; “Rushed to Halifax,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17).

[3] “Still No Explanation for Coal Mine Blast,” (The Globe and Mail, February 26, 1979, p1). Note: “Rushed to Halifax” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17) says the blast occurred “six to seven miles deep” but this is likely a mix-up between depth and distance into the mine.

[4] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, 1979, Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, iii; “Still No Explanation for Coal Mine Blast,” (The Globe and Mail, February 26, 1979, p1); “Rushed to Halifax” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17).

[5] “Coal Blast Kills 10 Miners,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17).

[6] “10 Miners Die as Blast Rocks Oldest N.S. Mine,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A01).

[7] ““Coal Blast Kills 10 Miners,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17).

[8] ““Coal Blast Kills 10 Miners,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17).

[9] “Milling Crowds,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17).

[10] “Rushed to Halifax,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17); “Still no explanation for coal mine blast” (The Globe and Mail, February 26, 1979, p1).

[11] “10 Miners Die as Blast Rocks Oldest N.S. Mine,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A01).

[12] “Milling Crowds,” (Toronto Star, February 25, 1979, A17); “Blast Kills 10 in Nova Scotia Mine,” (The Globe and Mail, February 26, 1979, p2).

[13] “11th coal miner dies,” (The Globe and Mail, March 9, 1979, p9).

[14] “Twelfth Victim is Claimed by Mine Explosion in N.S.,” (The Globe and Mail, March 8, 1979, p9).

[15] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, vi.

[16] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, vi.

[17] “Blast Kills 10 in Nova Scotia Mine,” (The Globe and Mail, February 26, 1979, p2).

[18] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, v.

[19] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, v-vi.

[20] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, v.

[21] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, viii-xii.

[22] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, ix.

[23] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, xiii-xiv.

[24] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, vi-vii.

[25] Elfstrom, R.H. (1980) Report of Commission of Inquiry: Explosion in No.26 Colliery, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on February 24, . Ottawa: Ministry of Labour, vi-vii.

[26] “Miner’s Wives Entitled to Benefits,” (The Globe and Mail, February 27, 1979, p8).

[27] “Blast Kills 10 in Nova Scotia Mine,” (The Globe and Mail, February 26, 1979, p2).

[28] “Miner’s Wives Entitled to Benefits,” (The Globe and Mail, February 27, 1979, p8).

[29] “Fund Surpasses Goal,” (The Globe and Mail, March 16, 1979, p9).

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Early morning explosion kills 12; 4 seriously injured


5 Responses to “1979 Glace Bay Disaster”

  1. Lee Anne Watt says:

    You missed one song that was written, recorded and played frequently in Cape Breton about this mining disaster. It was written by L. David Woods and it was also called the 26 Mine Disaster as well. The words went something like

    “Upon the hill above the town
    you can see the shaft where they go down
    into the deeps below the town,
    where night goes on and on.
    A methane pocket and a spark so small
    from a hammer drilling into a wall,
    sent a ball of fire down through the hall
    where the men had served their trade.

    chorus:
    10 Men died in a blast that day,
    2 died later in a place far away.
    Blew them right out of their boots they say
    ‘neath that rocky Cape Breton shore.

    The backshift had come to the surface when
    the dayshift radioed a message in
    to return to the deeps to help the men
    bring their buddies from below.

    repeat chorus:

    A day for service was set aside
    people came from far and wide
    10,000 strong were jammed inside
    to honour their mining friends.
    They gave from their hearts, their pockets and hands
    to help those in need any way that they can.
    The Cape Breton spirit is the way of the land,
    a love that knows no bounds.”

    I have a 45 record of it somewhere.

  2. Heather Sparling says:

    Thank you so much, Lee Anne, for bringing this song to my attention! I’ll post it immediately. If you’re able to send me a copy of the recording (or direct me somewhere that I can obtain a copy), that would be so helpful.

  3. Patrick Burns says:

    Thank you so much I had asked everyone what the name of this song was I was 8 yrs old and lived actually not that far from the mine my father worked and on fact he eas suppose to go out that afternoon when he got a call that there was an explosion at the mine to come and offer some help to which he and everyone else did in the town that day although it was a very miserable day weather wisebut that didnt matter everyone showed up to offer help in any way even dr jb tompkins rushed to the seen.so thank u so much for knowing the name of this song we two had a 45 record of this song and I have no idea of where it went to so again thank you!!

  4. Howard says:

    Just a quick note to correct the small mistake in the first line of the article where it says No. 26 was “near Glace Bay.” It was actually well within the town’s municipal border and therefore it was “in” Glace Bay.

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