Saturday, May the 9th, 1992. I remember the weather that day. It was cool and rainy. I remember hearing a radio report around noon about an explosion at the Westray Coal Mine that morning, and that a rescue operation was underway. It didn’t sound good. I don’t remember when I first heard the number 26 or when I realized that 26 represented every person at work underground at the time of the explosion.

As it happened, I was in Stellarton the following Monday for an arbitration. Reporters (former colleagues) staying at the same hotel were privately acknowledging the reality they hadn’t yet reported. The rescue was over. No one survived.

Six days after the explosion, the province appointed Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard to conduct an Inquiry into the disaster. Our firm was retained by the United Steelworkers to represent the surviving miners at the Inquiry. My assignment was to spend the summer interviewing as many Westray employees as would talk to us, those who worked underground and those who worked on the surface. The interviews were to form the basis of their testimony before the Inquiry. We wanted to hear their observations, learn about their experiences, to draw them out.

Some wouldn’t meet with us, but most Westray employees were grateful for the opportunity to talk about what they’d been through. Almost without exception they described a work environment where production was the priority and rudimentary safety conventions an inconvenience – to be ignored or actively circumvented. Experienced miners had never seen anything like it. Some of the younger workers, particularly those who hadn’t been underground before, seemed genuinely traumatized by their time at Westray.

I remember Wayne, a mechanic who was new to mining. He described coming to the surface on the Friday afternoon before the mine blew up, disgusted with the levels of coal dust underground and confronting a supervisor, warning that if nothing was done he would quit and go to the media.

Shawn and Lenny were two friends who had worked together in the hard rock mines of Northern Ontario and saw Westray as a chance to earn a living closer to home. Lenny had quit once after arguing with his boss over safety issues, but he came back to the mine. Both were part of the shift that was scheduled to start at 8 in the morning that Saturday. Instead of going to work, they were among the first rescue crews who went into the mine after the explosion.

Carl was injured underground when he tripped over a steel plate in the dark and an arch came down on top of him.  His cap lamp wasn’t working properly. The cap lamps were good for 8 hours, but the underground shifts at Westray were 12 hours long. Twelve hour shifts were not permitted by the mining regulations. Carl quit after making a complaint to the Department of Labour, a complaint that was never properly investigated.

Harvey told about being directed to hide fuel containers underground, against the orders of mine inspectors, so that vehicles could be refueled without taking them out of the mine and out of production.

There was Clive, a soft spoken, Welsh mechanic, with extensive underground experience, who emerged as a leader of the surviving miners. He re-entered the mine with the RCMP after the explosion and took the police to the piece of equipment that most likely started the methane fire that triggered the explosion. It was still in place at the coal face.

So many stories were told that summer that it was easy to forget that only nine months had passed between the day the mine officially opened and the morning it blew up.