The Westray Tragedy: A Miner's Story
Contains Photos, Maps
Richard Wilbur is supervisor of the Legislative Research Service, New
Brunswick Legislature, and author of The Rise of French New Brunswick.
Bookstore shelves are filled with personal accounts of headline events.
Most reach the remainder bins within weeks. Not so this brief but
agonizingly authentic account of a real tragedy that is still before the
Shaun Comish has no aspirations to literary fame; he’s a veteran
miner with a tale to tell, and he delivers it in a mere 58 pages. The
fact that this small account went through three printings in two months
indicates how the reading public (probably overwhelmingly Nova Scotians)
reacted to yet another mining tragedy that should never have happened.
Comish had excellent editors, but the story remains his—a story of
how Nova Scotia politicians looked the other way while profit-seeking
mine owners disregarded basic rules of mine safety in order to meet
impossible production quotas.
Comish takes his readers step-by-step through a coal miner’s daily
routine, spelling out in unadorned but clear language the many technical
terms and phrases that are common parlance among underground workers. He
also establishes the rapidly deteriorating working relationships between
the pit bosses and the miners, especially one named Roger: “[He] was
one boss you would avoid arguing with because he would never admit he
might be wrong. It was futile to try and make him see it your way. It
was his way or the highway.”
The basic problem was a refusal to follow safety regulations. “There
were cases of carelessness time after time in that hellhole. Lenny
[Comish’s longtime working buddy] told me of one time when they had
brought cutting torches underground to burn holes in some arches. I
don’t believe one regulation was adhered to when those torches were
brought down. ...” It was only a matter of time before disaster
struck. On May 9, 1992, only eight months after the Westray mine began
operations, a massive explosion trapped 26 of Comish’s fellow miners.
As a highly trained rescue worker, Comish was one of the draegermen who
tried in vain to save them.
In September 1993, Comish gave up his mining career to train as a
computer programmer. Judging by this pithy and gripping piece of
reporting, he should make his mark in the information highway.