05/09/2012 02:30 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Westray Mine Explosion 20th Anniversary: Sombre Memorial Marks Nova Scotia Disaster

CP File
NEW GLASGOW, N.S. - High school students placed white roses on the Westray mine disaster memorial Wednesday during a ceremony that urged future generations to never forget the importance of worker safety.

Twenty-six flowers were laid on the dark granite stone, one for each of the miners whose names are etched into the memorial of the May 9, 1992 disaster.

Under leaden skies that delivered a steady downpour, Rev. Glen Matheson gave an account of the history of mining disasters, saying the explosion in Plymouth, N.S., at the Westray mine had been among the worst in Canadian history.

He read from the public inquiry into the disaster, which found that it was the result of "incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, coverups, apathy, expediency and cynical indifference.''

The Presbyterian minister — who said prayers for the dead in the days following the methane and coal dust explosion — prayed Wednesday that political leaders will remember and learn.

"May there be lessons learned from this place. I pray this in the name of all things holy," he said.

As names of the dead miners were read, their relatives came forward and put down bouquets. A few reached out and touched the names on the stone.

The Men of the Deeps, a miners choral group, sang songs about coal mining accompanied by the young people who had placed the roses.

At a vigil earlier in the day, some family members recalled what the loss of the men had meant to their lives in the years since the disaster.

Allen Martin became emotional as he thought of the treasured moments from his own life that his brother Glenn missed.

"My daughter growing up, the fishing trip, our grandchild," he said.

"We didn't just lose him. We lost memories, we lost events and those things can never be replaced."

Both the evening ceremony and the morning vigil were held above the section of the mine where it's believed the bodies of 11 men remain buried. Searchers had to leave them entombed in the mine because the rock had become too unstable.

The mine blew up at 5:18 a.m. as a gush of methane gas escaped from the Foord coal seam and erupted into flames.

As a fireball raced through the tunnels, it stirred up coal dust that exploded in a massive blast, shaking homes a kilometre away.

In April 1993, the RCMP charged the mine's owner, Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc., 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.

A public inquiry led by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Judge Peter Richard singled out Westray management as ultimately responsible for conditions at the colliery. The judge also blamed complacent administrators who tolerated poor safety practices and outdated mining laws.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said at the evening ceremony that his province will never forget the mining disaster, and he noted that mining regulations have improved by successive governments.

"Nova Scotians remember that day and together we have made a commitment. We will ensure Westray is never forgotten and we will stay vigilant to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again," he said.

Of the 74 recommendations made by Richard, the majority were addressed with the implementation of the province's Underground Mining Regulations in 2003, the premier said.

Union leaders who spoke at the vigil and the commemoration service on Wednesday said governments and companies still are not tough enough on companies that violate health and safety rules.

Stephen Hunt, a United Steelworkers director who testified at the Westray inquiry, said there hasn't been enough prosecutions under the so-called Westray Act.

The federal law enacted in 2004 provided new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations and their 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 pledged 20 years ago, 'No more Westrays.' Unfortunately in this country we have a Westray every day, sometimes two or three times a day. A thousand people a year die because of their work. It's one of the worst records in the industrialized world," said Hunt.

"Since that law has been passed, about 9,000 workers have died because of their work and not one CEO is in jail because of it."

Despite the passage of 20 years, family members and the rescue workers say they still are finding the gatherings helpful in healing their grief.

Reg Falconer, one of the New Brunswick rescuers who went into Westray looking for survivors after the explosion, said in an interview that he met with the brother of Robert Doyle, a 22-year-old miner whose body he discovered.

"(Robert) was the youngest boy in that family. I can't help but think it must have been terribly hard for that mother and father," he said.

"I felt I made a connection for him. I helped connect him a lot closer to his brother."