WESTRAY RE­MEM­BERED

Meth­ane gas ex­plo­sion ripped through Westray mine in 1992, killing 26 min­ers

Cape Breton Post - - Front Page - BY SALTWIRE NET­WORK STAFF

After the tragic loss of fa­ther, sup­port helped her fam­ily.

Nine-year-old Sara MacKay was in bed asleep at her Sylvester, Pic­tou County home when a ring­ing phone woke her up.

It was about 6:30 or 7 a.m. on a Satur­day and her mother didn’t get to the phone in time. So the young girl fig­ured it was a wrong num­ber.

“But then it rang a sec­ond time, so my mother jumped out of bed and ran to the phone. Be­cause if some­body’s call­ing you at 6:30 in the morn­ing on Satur­day, then some­thing’s wrong — and twice,” said MacKay, re­mem­ber­ing that day in 1992 when her world changed.

Her aunt was the caller and she had heard on the ra­dio that there was an ac­ci­dent at the Westray mine, where MacKay’s fa­ther Mike worked as a miner.

“And then she came tear­ing down the hall­way in a panic, say­ing ‘Get up. We gotta go, we gotta go.’ So my sis­ter and I, still in our py­ja­mas, put our coats and boots on and she dropped us off at the neigh­bour’s house — a safe place where she knew we would be OK,” said MacKay. “I can just re­mem­ber her tak­ing us to the door and say­ing you gotta keep the kids — some­thing’s hap­pened at the mine.”

A meth­ane gas ex­plo­sion ripped through the Ply­mouth mine in the early hours of May 9, 1992. Twenty-six min­ers were trapped un­der­ground and all 26 died.

MacKay and her eight-year-old sis­ter stayed with neigh­bours, friends and fam­ily for the next five days as the tragedy un­folded. Her mother spent most of those days at the Ply­mouth fire hall where fam­ily mem­bers of the 26 min­ers were gath­ered.

MacKay said at the time she felt aban­doned, but her per­spec­tive changed when she be­came a mother her­self.

“I think I prob­a­bly felt as a child, why can’t we know, why can’t we be with you? We knew when she said some­thing hap­pened at the mine, we knew our dad was in trou­ble,” she said.

“I re­al­ize now as an adult that my mother prob­a­bly made the best de­ci­sion for us in keep­ing us away from ev­ery­thing.”

Five days after the ex­plo­sion, her un­cle picked her up from the neigh­bour’s house to take her home. He was quiet dur­ing the drive — leav­ing her with an un­set­tling feel­ing — but she was too afraid to ask any ques­tions.

She said when she got out of the ve­hi­cle, an­other un­cle, Tom, who was also a miner at Westray and who par­tic­i­pated in the search for the miss­ing min­ers, was stand­ing in the drive­way.

“And I could tell by the look of his face when I saw him, that he was gone. No­body on that day ac­tu­ally said to me: ‘Your dad’s not com­ing out alive.’”

In re­ac­tion to the re­al­iza­tion, her knees gave out and she col­lapsed.

“And my un­cle wrapped his whole body around me on the ground and we just laid there and he just kind of pro­tected me from hear­ing or see­ing any­thing else.”

Two weeks after the mine ex­plo­sion, MacKay re­turned to school, where she felt iso­lated.

“I think peo­ple just avoided me for the first lit­tle bit be­cause how do you go up to some­body who just lost a par­ent — ‘like hey do you want to go on the slide?’ I think they just avoided me for a lit­tle while after that be­cause it was hard to know what to say or to do.”

On May 9 ev­ery year, MacKay, her mother and her sis­ter go to Their Light Will Al­ways Shine Me­mo­rial Park in Park­dale, which is lo­cated above ground near where it’s be­lieved the un­re­cov­ered bod­ies of her fa­ther and the 10 other min­ers lie.

“He liked roses, and at first it was sym­bolic of my­self and my mother and my sis­ter, and after I had my own kids it is sym­bolic of me and the two kids for our love for him. My mother has ev­ery year left a beau­ti­ful wreath from all of us and I lay my own three roses also,” said MacKay.

In the past few years she’s been tak­ing her daugh­ter and son as well.

“The only glimpse of him they have is through pic­tures in frames, so it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber him in that way.”

Clo­sure was dif­fi­cult be­cause there’s no grave­stone for Mike MacKay and although a me­mo­rial ser­vice was held, she said it wasn’t the same as hav­ing a fu­neral.

“The thing about not hav­ing a body is you can’t see the per­son and you can’t ex­pe­ri­ence the clo­sure that comes with hav­ing a grave­side ser­vice, ac­knowl­edg­ing at least there was a body found. So at nine years old, my brain went to this place of ‘he’s not ac­tu­ally dead, he’s un­der­ground.’

“And then when they stopped searching, there was this panic of ‘but you haven’t found him yet he’s still un­der there, he’s prob­a­bly hav­ing a hard time breath­ing,’ which ended up ac­tu­ally trig­ger­ing a lot of night­mares for me.”

She said in the night­mares she sees his hands dig­ging through the dirt and then she wakes up usu­ally in a sweat or in tears.

MacKay said while the dreams have less­ened over the 25 years since the hor­rific event that took her fa­ther’s life, she still has oc­ca­sional night­mares that resur­face around the an­niver­sary.

She said los­ing her fa­ther in that way has had a pro­found ef­fect on her life, chang­ing who she is as a hu­man be­ing in both good and bad ways, in­clud­ing feel­ing an­gry for many years.

“I’m one of the lucky peo­ple who came out of Westray with­out drug ad­dic­tion, a drink­ing prob­lem or last­ing trauma that af­fects my abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in the world fully. I’m one of the lucky peo­ple who got away from that tragedy with­out hav­ing those kinds of residues.”

She said many oth­ers weren’t so for­tu­nate.

“Peo­ple came away from that bro­ken and some peo­ple are still bro­ken.

“I’m al­ways aware of the fact that I’m not the only one who’s suf­fered a huge loss in this world and so I feel like this tragedy has shaped me to be a per­son who’s able to see in oth­ers their own spa­ces of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and I think that’s why I’m do­ing the path I’m do­ing in school.”

Grad­u­at­ing from the Nova Sco­tia Com­mu­nity Col­lege where she stud­ied social ser­vices, she’s now en­rolled in psy­chol­ogy and so­ci­ol­ogy at St. FX Univer­sity in Antigo­nish. She even­tu­ally wants to work with peo­ple who’ve suf­fered trauma.

De­spite the loss her fam­ily ex­pe­ri­enced, MacKay said the sup­port they re­ceived helped them.

“This com­mu­nity of Pic­tou County has for 25 years sup­ported and loved and cared for my fam­ily and held so care­fully and grace­fully 26 fam­i­lies in their hands and in their hearts. They’re thank­ful for the gen­eros­ity, kind­ness and love they re­ceived.

“Peo­ple we didn’t know were bring­ing us food, peo­ple we didn’t know in other prov­inces were send­ing us cards with money. Peo­ple we didn’t know were show­ing up for us in ways that we didn’t ex­pect.

“Every­body ral­lied around to care, to hold us, to hold us for a mo­ment. It was a very in­tense para­dox of feel­ings. Twen­tysix peo­ple left, and an en­tire com­mu­nity showed up.”

SALTWIRE NET­WORK PHOTO

Sara MacKay, who lives in New Glas­gow, holds a photo of her fa­ther Mike and one of her un­cle Tom with Mike. Her fa­ther was one of the 26 min­ers killed when the Westray mine ex­ploded on May 9, 1992.

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