‘The things I saw I’ll never forget ... I can still remember their faces’
Ceremony remembers life-altering Springhill mine disaster.
Each time the hand bell rang, difficult memories came flooding back to Hilton McNutt.
Those haunting recollections came during a hymn sing and memorial at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Springhill on Oct. 23 – the 60th anniversary of the disaster.
McNutt, 89, of Springhill, was eating his lunch at the 12,500-foot level when the Number 2 mine bumped on Oct. 23, 1958. As the community gathered to remember the 75 men who lost their lives, McNutt thought of every one of them.
“I knew them all. I saw them every day, they were my friends,” said McNutt, who spent countless hours in the mine in the days following the third and final major disaster in Springhill’s mines. “The things I saw I’ll never forget and days like today bring all those memories back. I can still remember their faces.”
McNutt, who believes he survived because it was his turn to go for lunch, made it to the surface nearly three hours after the bump and was immediately sent back into its depths as a draegerman digging through the debris and walls to get to the miners still trapped.
Also attending the ceremony – that included performances by a community choir, solos by Clare Canning and the singing of one of Maurice Ruddick’s songs by his daughters Leah, Valerie and Sylvia – was Harold Brine, who is the last surviving miner trapped for several days at the bottom of what was at the time one of the world’s deepest coal mines.
Last week was the first opportunity Brine, who now lives near Fredericton, N.B., had to say thanks to people like McNutt, who risked his life to bring him and the other trapped miners to safety.
“It all happened so fast when we were rescued, we never had the chance to say thanks,” said Brine, who also expressed his gratitude to Canning and others for the ceremony. “Just think that night that I came out alive and all those people between me and Maurice Ruddick and the top of the wall never survived. I’ve often wondered how they died under all that rubble.”
The ecumenical service saw several hundred people crowd into the former town’s United Church. Some were relatives of those who died as well as those who emerged and at 8:06 p.m. (the time of the bump six decades earlier) everyone paused in a moment of silence followed by the reading of the names of the miners who lost their lives.
Bill Kempt, whose father Gorley survived the disaster but was haunted by its memories until a heart attack took him at age 47, said the bump was a “watershed moment” for many in the community.
“I was just thinking about the list of 75 men and I know I probably delivered papers to a lot of them and chased a lot of their daughters,” said Kempt, who was 15 at the time of the disaster. “Five or six of them were guys who hunted with dad.”
Kempt said it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of the bump that guilt felt by some bump survivors and their children were able to have some peace about the tragedy.
“I was there when my friends found out their dads were dead and mine emerged alive,” said Kempt. “I think at the 50th a lot of those feelings got worked out.”
He said it was special to see Brine once again as it was he and his father who crawled through the labyrinth of rubble to get to the pipe to yell for help.
Lt. Stephen Toynton of the Salvation Army reflected on the night.
“This is much more than a hymn sing. It’s a beautiful evening, songs beautifully chosen and heartfelt words, which is in sharp contrast to what happened 60 years ago almost to the minute.”
The Ruddick sisters, from left, Leah, Valerie and Sylvia sing a song written by their father Maurice Ruddick during a hymn sing and memorial at St. Andrew’sWesley United Church in Springhill on Oct. 23 – the 60th anniversary of the disaster. All three lost their fathers in the tragedy.