For­mer Westray worker worries about other sur­vivors

‘I was there from day one, al­most, right there to the end’

Cape Breton Post - - Front Page - BY NANCY KING

Don Dick­son says he of­ten won­ders how his for­mer co­work­ers at the Westray Mine are cop­ing with their mem­o­ries years af­ter the explosion that killed 26 min­ers.

Tues­day marked the 25th an­niver­sary of the explosion at the mine in Ply­mouth, Pic­tou Co.

Dick­son, a na­tive of St. Peter’s who also for­merly worked at the heavy wa­ter plant in Point Tup­per, worked at the Westray Mine as a process op­er­a­tor and was on shift the day be­fore the explosion.

“I was there from day one, al­most, right there to the end,” Dick­son said.

“We fin­ished shift that evening at 7 o’clock, it was 12-hour shifts, four on, four off. We fin­ished at 7 o’clock that night, the mine blew at 5:20 that morn­ing.”

He re­called be­ing awak­ened the next morn­ing when the phone rang, as his part­ner at

the time was a men­tal health coun­sel­lor.

“I don’t re­mem­ber get­ting dressed, but I got dressed and I jumped in the car and I went over. They had the car blocked off, but when I told them who I was they let me through and I was there, I guess, un­til the end.”

Each year as the an­niver­sary ap­proaches, Dick­son said the thought that re­mains with him is won­der­ing what hap­pened to some of his for­mer co-work­ers and won­der­ing how they have coped over the years. While now the very real im­pli­ca­tions of is­sues such as post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der and sur­vivors’ guilt are ac­knowl­edged, that wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the case in 1992 and em­ploy­ees were left on their own to find a way to deal with the af­ter-ef­fects of the explosion.

“How did these peo­ple make out? Did it play with their heads, did some of them do things to them­selves, were there sui­cides? Who knows? A lot of peo­ple worked there,” Dick­son said.

“I re­mem­ber them. I was very for­tu­nate, ev­ery­thing fell in place for me.”

Dick­son said, as far as he knows, no one has ever made an ef­fort to reach out to the for­mer em­ploy­ees to see how they have fared in the in­ter­ven­ing years, although there was a group for the fam­i­lies of the men who died.

“A day like to­day makes you think, ‘well where are these guys at, what are they do­ing, how are they mak­ing out?’” he said.

The chil­dren of the for­mer em­ploy­ees would now be adults and he said he also of­ten won­ders how they may have been af­fected by their con­nec­tion to the tragedy.

“I’m just as bad, I didn’t reach out to any­body,” he said. “Maybe ev­ery­body just put it be­hind them and said, ‘Leave it.’ Some­times peo­ple just don’t want it dragged up again. There was a lot of good guys died that night and a lot more could have died.

The big thing is the lessons learned and what’s come about from the Westray Mine, that peo­ple now have to be care­ful what they do.”

Dick­son did face some chal­lenges in the af­ter­math of Westray, in­clud­ing a year-long fight with govern­ment to have work­ers re­ceive sev­er­ance and to have those who as­sisted in the res­cue and re­cov­ery ef­fort be awarded medals of brav­ery. The for­mer em­ploy­ees also ul­ti­mately re­ceived ex­tended em­ploy­ment in­surance ben­e­fits if they re­turned to school.

“I took ad­van­tage of that at 48 and went and took an elec­tron­ics course,” Dick­son said.

He still fondly re­mem­bers the men he knew who died. He said he doesn’t “ad­ver­tise” that he once worked at Westray.

“You look at your­self some­times in the mir­ror and say, ‘Why did I let it hap­pen, I knew bet­ter,’” he said, not­ing de­spite dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions at the heavy wa­ter plant, no one was ever killed on the job there.

“Safety was an is­sue (at Westray), no ques­tion, it was, ‘Get the mine run­ning,’ some of the things even above ground were very un­safe and there was no di­rec­tion,” Dick­son said.

The gen­eral cul­ture around work­place safety and work­ers’ rights has im­proved greatly since Westray, Dick­son said.

Now 73, Dick­son said he has man­aged well over the years and since 1995 he has worked for Nova Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in Syd­ney, where he started as an elec­tronic tech­ni­cian and is now an ac­count ex­ec­u­tive, say­ing it al­lows him to ex­er­cise his gift of gab. He had no plans to re­tire.

NANCY KING/CAPE BRE­TON POST

Don Dick­son is a for­mer process op­er­a­tor at the Westray Mine and of­ten won­ders how for­mer em­ploy­ees of the mine have fared in the 25 years since an explosion killed 26 of their co­work­ers.

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