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Dan Calder The Stuff of Which Songs Are Written (3) The Stuff of Which Songs Are Written 23 Oct 98

In light of some recent discussion about the Springhill Disaster, I thought I would post this article from today's provincial newspaper here in Nova Scotia.


The Halifax Herald Limited Springhill miner waited 8 1/2 days for rescuers

By TOM McCOAG / Amherst Bureau

Springhill - Garnet Clarke drags deeply on a cigarette as haunting memories of the Springhill mine disaster 40 years ago today flood into his mind.

The Bump, as it is known locally, trapped him underground for nearly nine days, claimed the lives of 75 of his peers and kept the world spellbound for almost two weeks.

"It was an ordinary day," the retired coal miner remembered earlier this week. "I was standing by a pack when ... there was a great big thud. It wasn't a sharp sound, more like a loud rumble. It tossed me to the ground."

It was 8:06 p.m.

The rumble was a shift in the earth that caused the floor of the Dominion Steel and Coal Corp.'s No.2 colliery to slam into the mine's roof with such force that houses shook throughout the town.

Valarie Alderson, then nine, was standing by the kitchen table when she felt her house shake. "My grandmother ... knew it was the mine. She and my mother became upset because my father Tommy Tabor was underground."

A couple of blocks away, draegerman Bill James immediately knew the significance of the shaking ground. He raced to the pit in his car.

"Shaken men from the bump area were coming out of the pit. It was obvious from what they'd told us that things were really bad."

He was among the first group of draegermen to go underground. They found the main slope and the mine's west walls to be in good shape, but the east walls - especially near the 4,000-metre level - were a shambles and filled with deadly methane gas.

Mr. Clarke discovered he was trapped with six others in a space about four metres high and 10 metres long.

"We knew we had to wait until someone got to us. We just didn't know how long that would be."

Nor did Ms. Alderson. As newspaper headlines the next day screamed that there could be as many as 100 dead miners and a similar number rescued, she was whisked off to the neighbours.

"I never went to the pit head, but my sister Glenda and brother Gary did."

Her siblings were among the hundreds, including reporters from around the world, who stood by the mine entrance for days hoping for a miracle. While they waited, Mr. James and his fellow rescuers searched day and night.

The trapped men worried about methane gas and their families. To pass the time, they sang and talked "about everything" including food that - along with water - was in short supply.

Some even resorted to drinking their own urine. "It wasn't very good. It was too salty for me," Mr. Clarke said.

Four days after the bump, Mr. Clarke observed his 29th birthday. "We had a sandwich left in a can. We cut it up seven ways and all had a little bit."

By then some of his group wondered if they would ever be rescued. Mr. Clarke was not among them. "I could hear the trolleys moving. That gave me hope that they were trying for us."

Two days after his birthday, the first of what became known around the world as the Springhill Miracles took place. Twelve men trapped underground for 6 1/2 days were found and brought to the surface alive.

Two days later rescuers came across Mr. Clarke's group. "We didn't hear them coming. We saw their lights. ... It was like a dream," he said.

When news of the discovery reached the surface, reporters raced to flash the news of a second miracle around the world.

Both had provided Ms. Alderson hope that her father would still be found alive, but there were to be no more miracles. Two weeks after the bump, rescuers found her father's body. Her 12-year-old brother Gary had the difficult task of telling her that their father had died.

"I thought 'Oh God' and started to cry when he told me," she said, dabbing away tears.

The entire town, including about 100 miners who survived the bump, were in mourning for several days as the bodies of the 75 victims were buried.

A year later the town's heroism was recognized when it was granted the Carnegie Gold Medal by the American-based Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. It was only the second group toh for miner be awarded the prestigious medal. The other group recognized were the victims and survivors of the Titanic.

The disaster marked the end of major coal-mining operations in the community. Many people moved away and today the town's residents number only half the total in 1958.

Mr. Clarke and Mr. James found work in the small Syndicate mine until it closed in the early 1970s. Mr. Clarke went to work in unapproved bootleg mines, while Mr. James became manager of the Springhill Miner's Museum until he retired in 1992. Ms. Alderson grew up, married her husband John, had one child, and is now manager of the Anne Murray Centre.

Some have found it strange the town isn't holding a memorial service today. But the two retired miners don't. They say the service held each year on June 11, which remembers the hundreds of people who died during the century when mining coal was king in Springhill, is more than adequate.

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