Survivor remembers mine fire of 1973

Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

GLACE BAY — Robert Green says he will never forget the smell of his own burning flesh.

An aerial view of No. 26 colliery in Glace Bay from the 1980s.

Green was one of six miners badly burned in a flash fire that occurred in No. 26 colliery in Glace Bay on Sept. 18, 1973.

“We were cutting coal with a shear and we struck a gas pocket, I guess, there was an explosion,” the Donkin resident remembers. “It was so hot that you could smell your flesh burning and your hair singing. We were burned pretty bad there.”

Green began mining at age 16 and continued to work as a miner for 33 years in five different mines. He was 33 when the fire occurred, married with four children.

In addition to Green, the injured were identified as Fred Mullins, William Jackson, Donald Clark and Chester Gillette, all of Glace Bay.

A fire at the same mine earlier that year was attributed to gas. No. 12 Colliery in New Waterford was closed a year earlier after a fire killed a miner.

“We breathed a lot of heat, we almost had to go through the fire to get out because when you get an explosion like that, it goes through the air, and then it roared back up over us,” Green said. “The first blast blew me off my feet, they said it was a flash fire but there was a concussion with it too.”

The men not only had to endure the pain of being burned, they then had to wait two-and-a-half hours before they could be transported to hospital for assessment and treatment.

“We got to the hospital and they gave us I think it was some kind of morphine needle for the pain and I was asking could I go home and they said maybe in the morning, but in the morning I knew I wasn’t going anywhere because I was all swelled up and I couldn’t see for 24 hours,” Green said.

He sustained second- and third-degree burns. His worst injuries were to his face, especially his nose and ears, he said, and he also sustained burns to his arms and hands.

While he can’t remember precisely how long it took for him to recover, Green remembers that he was off work for “quite a while.” And while 40 years may have passed, the effects of the fire remain vivid in his memory.

“When I went back, I had to go back to the same job I was on, operating the shear. It wasn’t good,” he said, when asked what it was like having to return to the mine after suffering burns from the fire there. “You never forget it, because you can always smell your flesh and your hair burning. It never goes away.”

His flesh may have healed but he still experiences tenderness in the areas where he was burned.

“I still have to put salve on my face because it breaks out from the burns,” he said. “The tip of my nose was burned bad, it took a long time healing.”

In the time that it took for the men to be taken to the surface Green said he remembers feeling like he was about to black out, believing his body was going into shock.

“I remember them telling me, ‘Don’t go to sleep,’ and that, trying to talk to me like that. There was so much pain, though,” he said. “They didn’t have anything in the mines at that time for pain, but after that they put a medic station down in the mine for anybody that was hurt to help you until you got to a hospital.”

Green had to return to work before he was completely healed because his was the only paycheque coming into the household.

“There was no help back them,” he said. “You were on your own back then, we were only compensated for the clothes that were on our back, they had to cut our clothes off in the hospital to get at the wounds.”

He continued to work in the mines until 1990.

“I liked the years I had in the mine,” Green said. “It was dangerous you knew when you went to work you didn’t really know if you were coming back home on account 26 was a gassy mine, it was dangerous.”

Among the papers that Green still has documenting what happened to him and his fellow miners is a copy of a newspaper clipping on which his then-six-year-old daughter Brenda Lee wrote, “Daddy got hurt.”

The clipping noted that a Cape Breton Development Corp. official indicated there were 400 men in the mine at the time, and 75 at 19 north wall where the fire occurred at 7:30 p.m. The mine was evacuated. Draegermen were called to the pithead but weren’t needed.

“Only for the bare-faced miners, other than the ones that took us out in the rigs to get us to the surface, the rest of them stayed behind to fight the fire, only for that they could have lost the mine. Once it gets out of control, there’s hardly any way of fighting it down there. You were about five-six miles out under the ocean.”

Mine manager Jim MacLellan was quoted in the clipping as saying the mine would remain closed overnight but would resume production with the start of the next morning shift.

The clipping noted that hospital staff described the six miners as being in “satisfactory” condition, having suffered burns to their hands, arms and faces.

Green has talked about his experience in the mine fire before.

In a 2011 interview, he told the Cape Breton Post that despite difficult working conditions and an ever-present fear of death or injury, he really enjoyed working in the mines and wouldn’t mind doing it over again.

"I really enjoyed mining. If I was young again and they opened a new mine, I wouldn't mind doing it all over again."

The after-effects of the fire were also difficult for his family, Green notes.

“It took me a long time to get over it, I really wasn’t the same for awhile.”

Two of the other men injured in the fire have since died. He notes all miners become “good buddies,” bonding through their shared experiences.

In addition to surviving the mine fire, he was one of the men who volunteered to go underground to bring up the dead and injured from one of the worst mining disasters in Cape Breton history.

On Feb. 24, 1979, No. 26 colliery was the scene of another serious fire, this time ending in tragedy. Draegermen went in first to make sure it was safe for bare-faced miners like Green to go in. The men were found six or seven miles out under the ocean and were carried back on stretchers. In all, 12 men were killed and several others were badly burned.

“We were told that we didn’t have to volunteer to go down, that the draegermen were going down, but they could use other men that could help so I volunteered to go down. If I was down there, I’d want someone to come down for me.”

In 1984, yet another fire in No. 26 led to the closure of the mine.

When Green started mining in the mid-1950s, there were nine coalmines in the Glace Bay area, employing 10,000 men.

“There’s so many younger kids, maybe some of the ones that got burned too had families that don’t realize what went on, a lot of the kids today don’t know what the miners went through,” Green said. “I think a lot of them don’t realize what their fathers and grandfathers went through.”

Organizations: Cape Breton Development, Cape Breton Post

Geographic location: Glace Bay, Donkin, New Waterford Cape Breton

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments