Westray disaster: Questions about mine's safety raised before 1992 tragedy

In the early 1990s, a property with blue buildings and large concrete silos towered over Nova Scotia's Pictou County.

The site was the Westray Mine in Plymouth, N.S. – a facility that stood as a symbol of industry, a link to the area's mining history and a source of much-needed employment.

Crowds gathered to celebrate the mine’s opening in the fall of 1991 and its promised 300 jobs.

However, in the months that followed, questions were raised about the facility's safety, as complaints of danger and negligence started to mount.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

At 5:18 a.m. on May 9, 1992, a flame shot from the mineshaft, then fire, before a massive blast caused by a build-up of methane gas and coal dust was felt kilometres away.

Caught in the explosion were 26 miners who were working underground, all of whom lost their lives that day. The men ranged in age between 22 and 56 years old.

RECOVERY EFFORT

For the next six days, emergency crews tried to reach all 26 men trapped below. In the end, 15 of 26 bodies were recovered. Eleven were never found.

"Nova Scotians will never forget that day when those hard-working men didn't return home to their families," said Karla MacFarlane, the MLA for Pictou West and minister of Community Services, on behalf of Premier Tim Houston.

"The families continue to carry the trauma of that day, and the community shares their grief on the loss of their loved ones in a preventable tragedy."

PUBLIC INQUIRY

Shortly after the disaster, the province established a commission of inquiry to review the incident, which found that the explosion was preventable.

The inquiry's recommendations also resulted in changes to workplace health and safety. In total, the inquiry made 74 recommendations to improve health and safety in the mining industry.

It also prompted the creation of the Westray Law, to hold companies and individuals criminally responsible for workplace deaths, but labour leaders say the bill is rarely enforced since it became law in 2004. 

Following the explosion at Westray, two mine managers were charged for criminal negligence and manslaughter, but those charges were later dropped. At the time, prosecutors said there was not enough evidence for a conviction.

Following the disaster, the Westray mine was sealed and has remained closed ever since.

The Westray explosion is considered one of the deadliest mining disasters in Canadian history.

SERVICE MARKS 30 YEARS SINCE TRAGEDY

A special service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster will take place at the Westray Miners Memorial Park in New Glasgow, N.S., at 7 p.m. Monday.

CTV News will be livestreaming the event.