Former Westray worker worries about other survivors
‘I was there from day one, almost, right there to the end’
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.
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.