‘Just one of the lucky ones’
For Harold Brine, it came down to willing himself to survive or accepting a fate of forever being entombed deep underground in what would become Nova Scotia’s worst mining disaster.
“I thought I’d never see daylight again,” said the 86-year-old former bare-face miner.
Sixty years ago this week, Brine was trapped for five days with 11 companions in a cavern near the bottom of Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation’s No. 2 colliery in Springhill, Nova Scotia.
An Oct. 23, 1958 “bump” – an underground upheaval similar to an earthquake – ripped apart the lower section of the 14,200-ft.long slopping shaft in which Brine and 173 other miners were working. Seventy-five died in the upheaval that ravaged one of the world’s deepest mines.
In the main shaft reaching more than 4,000 feet below the surface, the force of the brief, but powerful bump, lifted the floor of the approximately eight-ft.-high tunnel into the ceiling. Many miners were crushed between the two or buried under tonnes of broken coal from walls and ceilings.
But in some areas the bump’s rippling effect lifted the floor only half way, leaving an approximately four-ft.-high pocket that Brine and his co-workers found themselves in.
“I thought we were done with,” the bump’s last surviving rescued miner said in a recent interview at his Geary, N.B., home. “I wondered how long we could last with nothing to eat and nothing to drink.”
Desperation would led to even drinking his own urine; it did little to quench the constant thirst for water.
But his despair was countered by an intense desire to be united with his wife and daughter, Bonnie, on the surface.
“I had a little two-year-old who had to go through life, and I wondered if she would remember me,” he said. “That was one of the things I worried about the most.” Coal, the economic backbone The Springhill native was just 20 when he first went down into the mines in 1951. Coal was, at the time, the economic backbone of the community of about 7,000 residents.
“I wanted to get married and needed more money,” he said of initially working in timber and shoring work, before digging with pick and axe on the coal face.
But what happened at 8:06 p.m. on that October 1958 evening is, and will forever be, etched in his memory.
Brine recalled working with three other men – Herbie Guthro, Joe Holloway and Teddy Michniack – on a coal seam wall at the 13,800-ft. level when the violent upheaval occurred.
“I was near the top of the roof pulling some coal down when it happened. It hit me and I don't know, it marked my ribs and split my ear open. It kind of knocked me out. I was dazed.
“When I came to, Herbie and Joe were right below me. They were both buried by coal pushed out from the face of the wall. I helped dig them out.”
Brine recalled a couple of smaller tremors earlier in his shift, a common occurrence in the mine. “I had no idea the last one was going to be as bad as it was.”
He passed two dead miners as he crawled up the narrow shaft in an effort to find a way out.
But there was a cave-in and, “As I crawled up over the stone, the methane gas almost put me out. The boys grabbed me by the feet and pulled me down off the rock close to the floor where the air was good. At that point we figured we couldn’t get out.”
Brine said their escape was also blocked by another cave-in below. “We were in quite a big hole about four-feet high. We could move around.
“Originally there were four of us. Where the other guys came from I don’t know.”
Two of those trapped were seri- ously injured, he said, including one with a “busted hip” and the other, hurt when a rock dropped on his foot. “They suffered the whole time we were down there.”
But the rest were in relatively good physical and mental shape, he noted.
Before their battery-operated head lamps died about 12 hours later, Brine said they took stock of where everyone was. “We were all sitting on top of the coal like in a circle.”
During their five-day ordeal, he said the trapped miners could hear rescuers using compressed air-driven chipper picks. But because of the acoustics of sound travelling through the coal seam, they couldn’t determine how far away they were.
“We knew they were working towards us, but could they get to us in time?”
Brine said one of the boys had a small aspirin bottle, used as rationing container from a can halffilled with water found in the tunnel. “But, that didn’t last very long.”
He said it wasn’t long before some of them began urinating in the can and drinking from it.
Although forced air from the surface was still getting into the pocket and cleaning the air, Brine said they had to stay low to avoid a gas buildup over their heads.
“There was no panic and nobody got excited. We all just sat there hoping to survive.”
He praised fellow miner Caleb Russell for encouraging the trapped men to “take time to have a little song and time to have a little prayer.”
“My concern was how we were we going to die. Would it be from hunger or from thirst? Never thought of food, all I thought of was water.”
In the meantime, they pounded on a steel pipe in hopes of being heard.
Rescuers, he said, were finally able to punch an 80-ft.-long pipe through the debris and communicate with those on the other side.
“We told them how many of us were trapped, how many were hurt and if we were aware of any other trapped miners.
“All we wanted was water. Just give us some water,” he said of yelling through the metal pipe.
When the trapped men were finally brought out of the mine in baskets, Brine said they were advised to shield their eyes from lights and camera flashes to protect their vision.
Ironically, Brine was a draggerman rescuer who went down the adjacent No. 4 colliery following an explosion two years earlier that claimed the lives of 39 miners.
Following his rescue, he said he was unaware of just how many miners died or were hurt.
“I always figured I was just one of the lucky ones to survive the disaster.”
Two months later, on Dec. 30, he and his family packed up their things and drove to Ontario in search of another job. “My wife’s parents were up there. I knew there was nothing left for me in Springhill.”
Brine said his only regret was never having the chance to thank all of those who risked their lives to save him.
“You would think there would have been a get-together to say thank you to those who rescued you,” he said. “But, there wasn’t.”