Friday, February 8, 2008

Hollinger Mine Disaster - 80 years ago this week

The existence the Mine Rescue program in Ontario is directly related to a mining disaster in Timmins eighty years ago this weekend. Some of the most basic workplace safety rules that many take for granted today, are also tied to that event which still ranks as one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history.
It all goes back to a cold February 10 morning in 1928, when 921 miners were at work in the numerous drifts, stopes and raises at the Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mine in Timmins. It was the largest gold mine in North America at the time.
According to evidence from the inquest, it was around 9:30 that morning that smoke was first noticed by underground and surface workers alike.
Mine officials were stunned. Conventional thinking at the time was that fires did not occur in hardrock metal mines, the way they occurred in "soft rock" such as coal mines. There were timbers in the mines, but the constant runoff of water made it unlikely for timbers to catch fire.
What no one considered at that moment was that there was an open excavation, on the 550-foot level, in Stope 55A, just east of crosscut tunnel number 12. A stockpile of trash, sawdust, powder boxes, paraffin paper and lumber had been accumulating.
Somehow that rubbish caught fire at about a quarter after nine that Friday morning.
In later years experts would suspect it was some form of spontaneous combustion. The result was a slow smoldering fire that would prove deadly.
As the trash burned, it created a grey-black smoke that began to roll along the tunnels. At 10 a.m. the first body was discovered and rushed to surface. At 10:15, another body was found. This was enough to send the men scrambling for the ladders and the shaft. Within three hours, hundreds of the miners got to surface and saved themselves. But not everyone could find their way to safety.
There was no organized mine rescue or fire fighting program in place at the Hollinger, or any other hardrock mine in Ontario for that matter.
It would take five days to put out the fire and find all the dead, but in the end 39 miners were dead, As a mining disaster in Ontario, it was unprecedented.
Many of the men who were underground would never know what killed them. Experts later concluded it was carbon monoxide poisoning that killed all 39 men. The odorless and colorless gas was produced by the slow-burning trash.
Fire fighting resources and expertise at the Hollinger were so bleak at the time that organized mine rescue teams from the coal mines of Pennsylvania were rushed to Timmins.
The men and material from the U.S. Bureau of Mines were put aboard an express train which was then rushed to Timmins.
Rushed is a relative term, considering the steam locomotive pulling a few specially equipped cars had to roll through northern Pennsylvania, into New York state, cross the border at Niagara Falls, pick up provincial officials in Toronto and then chug north to Timmins. The trip took a day and a half.
Upon arriving in Timmins, the American coal miners were able to put on their special gear, descend into the mine and get to work at putting out the fire.
As they began recovering the bodies, company officials were shocked to find that some of the miners had died while eating their lunch. Some of the dead were found with food still in their mouths. Company officials had no idea how quickly carbon monoxide could kill a man.
There was a huge public outcry over the loss of life. Within days, the Ontario government set up a royal commission through Ontario Mining Commissioner Judge T.E Godson to find out what happened and why.
Godson made his recommendations in September of that year.
He found that Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines had not cast aside safety in favour of profits. What happened was an error of omission, Godson concluded. No one knew, or ever expected, a fire could, occur in a metal mine.
The report ordered that all accumulations of rubbish be removed from underground locations at least once a week. Both the manager and assistant mine manager at the Hollinger were reprimanded for not knowing there was an underground rubbish dump.
The report also ordered that fire doors be set on different levels to allow miners to escape smoke situations. One of the key suggestions was to establish special rescue stations in every major mining community that would have specialized equipment and training so the rescue operations could be mounted.
The lessons learned from the Godson Commission are things that many miners take for granted today, but the manager of Ontario’s Mine Rescue program says the Hollinger disaster highlighted the need for serious safety changes in mining in Ontario.
“Oh absolutely, there were so many recommendations integrated into legislation because of the Hollinger fire,” said Gryska who runs the program through the Mines and Aggregates Safety and Health Association.
He says perhaps the most notable was the creation of a formal mine rescue program in Ontario one year after the fire. The first ever Ontario Mine Rescue station was established in Timmins in 1929.
Gryska says Ontario Mine Rescue is now recognized as being one of the best such organizations in the world.
Another example is the fact that it is now against the law to store any garbage underground for more than a day.
“The fact that we don’t store trash underground, it was because of that fire,” said Gryska.
“What they did back then was they used explosives boxes, and all the cardboard and that, they just threw it into open stopes with greasy rags and things like that, they just threw it all in there and that was the source of the fuel for the fire.”
“They didn’t know, at that point in time. It probably made sense … why bring all this stuff up from underground, the cost of bringing it out was so costly, so it wasn’t done.”
He says another important ruling was that signs had to be posted throughout the mines.
“Miners today will see signs underground showing them fire exits. At that point in time one of the problems was that miners didn’t know where to go. They got lost in the smoke,” said Gryska.

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