At approximately 5:18 AM, on Saturday May 9, 1992, an explosion occurred in the southwest section of the Westray mine. The mine was owned and operated by Curragh Incorporated. The explosion travelled upward to the mine entrance, allowing a fireball to be seen above the mine for a moment. Windows near the mine were shattered and people reported feeling a tremor up to a kilometre away.
The explosion and the carbon monoxide it created quickly killed the 26 miners working in the mine at the time of the blast. The levels of carbon monoxide and methane would have built up quickly and significantly after the explosion destroyed the mine’s ventilation doors. This, together with debris, slowed the work of the draegermen rescue-workers (no barefaced miners participated in the rescue). While at first there was hope for survivors, it soon became clear that no one had survived. The draegermen retrieved a total of 15 bodies from the mine before, on the evening of Thursday May 14, 1992, the mine’s management decided it was too dangerous to attempt retrieving any more.The mine was sealed with 11 bodies still within it. The mine was later flooded, and the bodies were never recovered.The Westray mine never reopened.
The cause of the explosion was never officially determined. However the most likely scenario is that a build up of methane occurred due to either a blocked tube or broken seal, both of which would have hampered ventilation. If the gas could not be vented, it would have gone up the work face, where it likely came into contact with a continuous miner machine, which could cause sparks if the cutting head on it struck the pyrite embedded in the rock. The sparks would have ignited a rolling flame, which became a methane explosion. That explosion was further magnified when it threw up coal dust, which also ignited. The mine’s management later reported only a slight increase of methane levels at this time, well below unsafe levels. Some miners stated that they had been encouraged to ignore methane detectors or work with faulty ones if it meant getting work done faster. This was allegedly the situation with the methane detector on the continuous miner which ignited the explosion. Either way, these methane monitoring devices proved ineffective.
The deaths did not solely affect the town of Plymouth, as many miners who worked in Westray lived in nearby towns. The families of the victims of the disaster were financially compensated by the provincial Worker’s Compensation Board and Curragh Incorporated, as well as by numerous donations which came in from various locations worldwide.
The Westray mine disaster immediately sparked controversy as former miners began to level accusations at Curragh Incorporated to the effect that it had deliberately run an unsafe and poorly managed mine in order to increase their profits, and that they had made efforts to hide this from the provincial and federal authorities. Numerous examples of inadequate safety measures were presented, and safety measures suggested by the miners had apparently been ignored. Consequently, there were four separate investigations into the disaster. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court, The Department of Labor of Nova Scotia, the RCMP, and Curragh Incorporated each formed groups committed to determining exactly what has occurred, and how liable Curragh Incorporated was for the incident. The RCMP eventually charged Curragh Incorporated and two mine managers with criminal negligence and manslaughter. However due to the manner in which evidence was handled, as well as an ill-equipped Crown prosecution, the Crown eventually decided that convictions were unlikely and let the matter drop. Meanwhile the inquiry by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the blame rested with many people and departments in both the company and the provincial government. It made several recommendations to prevent another such disaster. One piece of legislation was drafted and passed as a result of the Westray disaster: Bill C-45, known as the “Westray Bill,” allows companies to be held accountable for acts of criminal negligence.
CBC video of Men of the Deeps honouring Westray victims.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “Westray Bill (Bill C-45) – Overview,” OSH Answers Fact Sheets. Accessed November 18, 2020.
Comish, Shaun 1993. The Westray Tragedy: A Miner’s Story. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.
McCormik, Christopher. 1999. The Westray Chronicles: A Case Study in Corporate Crime. Black Point, N.S. Fernwood Publishing.
McMullan, John L. 2005. News, Truth and Crime: The Westray Disaster and Its Aftermath. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Books
Richard, K. Peter. 1997. The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, Nova Scotia. Accessed November 18, 2020.
Taylor, Wilkie. 1998. “Chronology of Westray” Halifax Herald. Accessed November 18, 2020.
Unknown. 1992. “Blue flash, boom alerted residents to mine disaster,” The Toronto Star, May 10.
Unknown. 1992. “Mine community plunged into grief,” The Globe and Mail, May 11.
Unknown. 1992. “Steel-nerved draegermen seek survivors,” (The Toronto Star, May 11.
Unknown. 1992. “No further hope for trapped miners,” The Globe and Mail, May 15, 1992.
Unknown. 1992. “Miners knew they could die,” The Toronto Star, May 11.
Unknown. 1992. “Sympathy, donations flood into Plymouth,” The Toronto Star, May 11.
Unknown. 1992. “Controversy dogged Westray mine,” The Globe and Mail, May 11.