Walter Hayes was where he spent most fine evenings at the age of 19: in the parking lot at the gas station at the corner of Robie and Cunard Streets, clustered with a dozen or so friends around his two-door ’55 Studebaker coupe — pink and black with two-tone tires—as the music from his car radio filled the fall night.
Elvis was playing, recalls Hayes, now 79. Then, at a little after 8 p.m. on October 23, 1958, the radio announcer broke in to say there had been an accident at the No. 2 Colliery in Springhill and that a whole lot of miners were unaccounted for.
“I hot-footed it for the Herald,” Hayes recalls of that evening, 60 years ago.
The man, you see, had ambition. Upon landing a job at The Chronicle Herald and Mail Star a year earlier, the grade 11 drop-out learned to take pictures as well as to write stories, to differentiate himself from the college-educated journalists working there.
By making his presence conspicuous in the newsroom that night, he hoped to be deployed with the Herald team to the colliery town, where 175 men had been working in one of the deepest coal mines in the world when a series of underground earthquakes hit.
When they sent the more experienced hands, Hayes sulked for a bit. The next morning, though, he screwed up his courage, walked into the office of Frank Doyle, the paper’s managing editor, and begged to be sent to Springhill.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Doyle growled.
So Hayes, who, in those days, wore a newsman’s fedora to go with his suit and tie, tie clip and cufflinks while on the job, jumped in his Studebaker and headed north, where the story of his career, and that of so many other journalists, waited.
Six decades later the ranks of those who played a direct role in the Springhill “bump” grow thinner by the day.
There’s only one miner left from the 19 who emerged, as if by miracle, from the deeps long after the world had given them up as dead.
Earlier this year, Arnold Burden, the fabled doctor who went underground during the Springhill explosion in 1956, when 39 miners died, and two years later, when the mine’s floor and rock ceiling clapped together, passed on.
Hayes, who, after leaving the Herald, went on to a career as a writer/photographer with the Canadian Press in Halifax, Vancouver and Toronto, is one of two living journalists from this paper who covered a disaster that became the world’s first major international television event and spawned a song by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl later sung by U2.
The newsroom rookie remembers the shock of arriving at the office of mine owner Dominion Steel and Coal Company (DOSCO). The public relations team was headed by Arnie Patterson, later the owner of Dartmouth’s CFDR radio station and press secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. More than 150 journalists from around the world descended on Springhill.
By then 75 miners had made it to the surface, but 100 were still buried underground. Hayes’ job was to write and take pictures, but mostly to gather up all the film shot and drive it from Springhill to Amherst, where the paper had a rudimentary darkroom in somebody’s house.
There he developed the film and then ran it over to the CN Telegraph office in Amherst, where it would be sent back to the Herald, and eventually out to a world raptly awaiting news about the Springhill miners.
Hayes, who was drawn to photography more than writing, wasn’t just a gofer. Using his speed graphic camera, the kind with the flashgun that you see in the old movies, he shot ambulances arriving and leaving from the mine’s pithead.
And he took pictures of the draegermen, coal miners specially trained in rescue techniques, entering the shaft and eventually emerging with the bodies of all 74 who died in the mine.
It was challenging work for a kid who’d barely seen a dead body. In the days that followed, Hayes, like the other Herald journos, didn’t get more than two consecutive hours sleep, at the two bed apartment the paper had rented for its eight reporters and photographers.
The limited technology meant that he could only shoot twelve pictures at a time without returning to the darkroom to reload.
As well, most of the work was done in the dark: the rescued men were brought to the surface at night, to avoid exposing them to intense light after all the time underground. The photographers were prohibited from shooting their flashes for fear of triggering another explosion.
Human disasters, you should know, are the worst thing a journalist can cover. When we spoke earlier this week, Hayes recounted the daily DOSCO press conference during which company officials would give updates on the rescue operation.
But four days or so after the disaster, the mine bosses were convinced that it was unlikely anyone else would be found alive. From then on, only bodies emerged from the mine.
Increasingly, Hayes would walk up to the doors of family members waiting to hear about their husbands, fathers and brothers and ask if he could take pictures of them too.
Part of the time he was teamed with a photographer from New York right out of central casting, hired to get the big shot.
At one point the pair entered the house of a dead miner. The Gotham shooter walked up to the casket, where the widow sat nearby, and said to a clergyman, in a loud enough voice, “Hey Bud! Wheel the old babe over here next to the coffin so I can make a picture.”
Back in the press office, he was met at the door by DOSCO’s Patterson who grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and threw the photographer down a flight of stairs to the street below.
No wonder the army of journalists came to be seen as the enemy in the small town. Hayes remembers, at one point, sitting on a bench near the Red Cross tent at the pithead next to three teenage girls.
When one of them asked him what he was doing in Springhill, he replied that he was reporter/photographer with The Chronicle-Herald.
She gave him a look and said “I hate reporters.” Then all three of them got up and walked away.
The remark still cuts Hayes. But all those years later he’s proud of the work he and the others did in Springhill.
The news they spread was largely responsible for the outpouring of condolences and financial aid to Springhill families from people around the world.
Hayes wasn’t just the bringer of grim tidings either.
Six days after the disaster, with no more survivors expected, most of the reporters had left. So Hayes, the last remaining Herald journalist, ended up going live on CHNS radio, then owned by the paper, tears streaming down his face with the unbelievable news that 12 miners had emerged Lazarus-like from the depths.
The Herald stopped the presses that day to put out a special edition — “12 Alive” read the banner headline — which Hayes holds in the picture accompanying this article.
The press flooded back into Springhill with the news of the miracle miners. After that, recalls Hayes, it was a blur of interviews with relieved spouses and families and pictures of the rescued miners in hospital with wives, nurses, and visiting luminaries including Prince Philip and Premier Robert Stanfield.
Hayes remembers something else too: how, three days after the discovery of the 12 miners, contact was made with another seven. DOSCO provided the Herald and other news media a list of names of those discovered alive, before they were actually brought from the depths of the mine.
He and his colleagues divided up the names of the survivors, then left to talk with their families about how it felt to learn their beloved had been found alive after being buried underground for 10 days.
He doesn’t recall the surname of the family in the house he was charged with visiting. But in his mind’s eye he can see the dozen or so people in the living room, crowded around a radio listening to the news reports.
He can hear the room erupt in cheers after he told the miner’s wife who he was, and why he was there and she embraced him in a vise-like grip, sobbing with abandon.
No one at DOSCO had contacted the family, he told me, growing emotional himself. Hayes of the Herald had brought the woman the news that her husband was alive.
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