05/06/2012 02:00 EDT | Updated 07/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Tragedy of Nova Scotia's Westray mine explosion recalled 20 years later

HALIFAX - Moments after she learned the Westray coal mine had exploded, Bernadette Feltmate turned to face her oldest daughter as she came down the stairs.

It was Amy's 11th birthday, and she wanted to know if her father was bringing home a cake.

But Feltmate knew her husband Roy was in the mine.

"I had to turn around and tell her," she says, vividly recalling the moment almost 20 years ago.

"It was horrible. It was the worst thing I ever had to do in my life. To see a little girl going back up those stairs. She had her head down. She didn't cry. She went in her room."

It was May 9, 1992. At 5:18 a.m., far beneath the small town of Plymouth, N.S., a sudden gush of methane gas escaped from the Foord coal seam and erupted into flames. Within seconds, a huge fireball raced through the mine, stirring up coal dust that exploded in a thundering blast.

A blue-grey flash lit up the pre-dawn sky. Homes more than a kilometre away shuddered as the shock wave rumbled through the earth.

In all, there were 26 men underground at the time, most of them in the final hours of a four-day shift.

"He was probably blown to pieces," says Feltmate, recalling a conversation she had with a group of older Cape Breton miners who had come to Westray to offer their help. "They said there wouldn't be enough left of him to bring out."

A team of rescuers wearing breathing masks found 11 bodies the next day in the southwest section amid charred rubble and twisted machinery. But it would be another four agonizing days before searchers reached the North Mains, where four more dead miners were found.

The search for the remaining men, including Feltmate's 33-year-old husband, was called off on May 14. Westray officials said the mine was too unstable and there was no reasonable possibility that anyone had survived.

The bodies of 11 men were entombed in the mine.

It was the worst mining disaster in Canada since 1958, when 75 men died in a series of collapses at a coal mine in Springhill, N.S.

Feltmate says the loss of her husband left her family so badly damaged it has yet to heal.

"I know that on the 9th of May, (Amy) will call me, and as soon as I pick that phone up, she'll be crying," she says, sobbing between deep breaths.

"She's suffering because she doesn't have the one person that she adored in her life. She was very close to her father. ... They were always together."

The mine, a two-hour drive northeast of Halifax, was supposed to be a godsend. It was supposed to provide 15 years of steady employment in an economically depressed area that saw its last coal mine close in the 1970s.

The owners of Westray, Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc., promised to use the latest technology to ensure a level of safety the province had never seen before. The federal and provincial governments extended more than $80 million in loans and loan guarantees.

But there were warning signs from the start.

The coal seam under Pictou County was already a well-known killer. Of the more than 2,500 men who have died in Nova Scotia mining accidents since the mid-1800s, about 250 were killed in explosions caused by methane seeping from the Foord seam.

Curragh officials said they could lessen the risks, but there were other troubling signs the mine would soon become a death trap.

Within a month of Westray's official opening in September 1991, there were three major cave-ins.

Two months later, Westray miner Carl Guptill relayed a litany of safety violations to provincial inspectors. But the Labour Department failed to take action and Guptill was fired in January 1992.

Feltmate says her husband wanted to quit because the mine was unsafe. She said he often talked to her father about what went on in the mine, but he said very little to her.

"The only thing dad ever said to me was, 'Little girl, I'm telling you right now, if you don't get that man out of that mine .... you're going to have somebody in a white suit and the RCMP at your door,'" she says.

"Unfortunately, he was right."

After the explosion, the mine closed, about 200 people were thrown out of work and a tangle of lawsuits and investigations ensued.

In April 1993, the RCMP charged Curragh and two of its former managers with manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death. But the case eventually fell apart when the Crown concluded convictions were unlikely.

In the end, it was left to a public inquiry to determine what happened at Westray.

More than five years after the probe was announced, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Judge Peter Richard issued a hard-hitting report that concluded the tragedy was the result of "incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, coverups, apathy, expediency and cynical indifference."

Richard singled out Westray management and its owner, Clifford Frame, as ultimately responsible for conditions at the ill-fated colliery. The judge also blamed complacent bureaucrats who tolerated poor safety practices and ineffective monitoring of outdated mining laws.

The inquiry found there was little safety training at the mine, ventilation was poor and the mine's methane detectors were often broken. Mine managers ignored directives to reduce the buildup of volatile coal dust, and rockfalls were a common occurrence that went unreported.

John Merrick, the inquiry's lead counsel, says that at one point during the inquiry a provincial mine inspector admitted he couldn't tell what parts of the mine he had examined when shown a map of Westray's tunnels.

"One of the things that came out of the inquiry was that so many things did go wrong," Merrick said in a recent interview.

"Mine management knew that they had a problem but continued to proceed full-steam ahead because they were confident they could overcome the problems, when they couldn't."

Ramsey Hart, a co-ordinator with Mining Watch Canada, says Westray's legacy can be measured in the application of the so-called Westray Bill, a federal law enacted in 2004 that provided new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations and representatives when workers are injured or killed on the job.

The law has been used in criminal prosecutions several times, but the courts have registered just two convictions.

"We don't seem to have switched the mentality to these being issues of criminality," he says. "Unfortunately, we are still seeing an unacceptable number of fatalities in mines ... There are some disturbing indications that we may be losing some ground."

Though Nova Scotia's last operating underground coal mine was closed in 2001, plans are in the works to open another one in eastern Cape Breton as early as 2014. The proposed Donkin mine is in the midst of an environmental assessment.

"I would hope that Westray is not that far in the past that there won't be some twinge of people's thinking when they're in the course of opening that mine," says Merrick.

"I hope the word Westray will be whispered in the back of their minds."