‘Just one of the lucky ones’

Truro Daily News - - PASTIMES - BY BRIAN HAYES

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.”

Harold Brine

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