Chronicles of British Columbia - Chile's Underground Disaster, A Sad Backdrop to Next Black Track Tour

by T.W. Paterson, All rights reserved

Those who take the tour are not just walking atop abandoned coal mines but over the graves of 37 men.

As I prepare to lead yet another Black Track Tour, the third this year to be sponsored by the Friends of the Morden Colliery in their efforts to save our last surviving headframe structure from continuing deterioration and eventual collapse, I'm following the news reports of the unfolding mining saga in Copiapo, Chile.

There, 33 miners are trapped 700 metres below the surface. That's almost half a mile underground!

It's more than half a century after, and far from the coal fields of South Wellington. But there are striking similarities between this current drama and those experienced here on Vancouver Island in years past.

The dissimilarities are extreme, in some cases, extraordinary. This disaster has drawn world-wide attention, perhaps because of the miners' miraculous continuing survival (more than three weeks at the time of writing) after a cave-in blocked their escape. Heroic rescue workers have managed to pipe through to them water, food, medical care and "communications". This last-named aid could well be the crucial one as it's estimated that it will take up to four months to excavate a tunnel large enough for a man to slither through.

In the meantime, they wait. Can any one of us truly imagine what is going through their minds as, entombed, in the damp and all but in total darkness, they wait and pray for rescue? It will be those "communications," not just food and water, that keeps them going for the duration. Communications with their loved ones via video, and counselling by psychiatrists and organizations and individuals "with experience in prolonged isolation" such as submariners and veterans of the NASA space program.

They certainly didn't have those on hand in the South Wellington, Extension, Nanaimo and Cumberland coal mines during their 80-year-long heyday. Not that it would have mattered. A cave-in, whether the result of explosion or collapse, was a death sentence. If you weren't crushed, you invariably died of gas. More than 600 miners are known to have been killed on the job in Island mines in just over three-quarters of a century, never mind those who died later (some times much later) of work-related injuries, or black lung, and who are not regarded as casualties.

But the Chileans, fortunately, aren't mining for explosive coal. And they have a much greater ally working on their behalf: high-tech in the form of an Australian-made Strata 950 Bore. This isn't, as invariably was the case here, a race against time measured in hours not months, by rescuers armed with the most primitive of breathing apparatus and armed only with picks and shovels. This is a machine that drills through solid rock at as much 20 metres per day. The downside is that the hole is too small for a man to pass through and will have to be re-bored to a larger diameter.

But the very fact that this is possible, makes it probable that these 33 miners will be rescued. The real challenge, until that day, is to keep their spirits up.

None of this was the case for our own miners. Simply put, those who didn't make it out of the mine immediately after an explosion or cave-in didn't make it out at all.

These thoughts come to my mind as the September 12th Black Track Tour draws near. I've led at least 15 tours to date, beginning with one a year, now up to three because of popular demand. But it was only this spring, while meeting with the participants at Morden Colliery Provincial Park, that it struck me what we were really doing.

Over the next several hours we would be visiting not just the Morden Mine but the South Wellington No.'s 5 and 10, the Alexandia, the Richardson-Fiddick, the Pacific Coast Coal Mine and Granby. Most of these sites remain undeveloped, more or less, to this day, although often they are within close proximity to houses. Which makes me, sometimes, wonder if the people who live, literally, atop these abandoned workings ever really think about it. You know how we seldom appreciate the history of our own immediate surroundings.

But in their case, and in the case of the hundreds of men, women and children who have participated in the various Black Track Tours, they're not just walking atop the miles and miles of flooded and collapsed tunnels. They're walking on the graves of at least 37 men who were killed beneath their feet in the South Wellington mines. Some of those men, as at the No. 10, died within living memory. More than once, relatives and descendants have joined these tours; for them in particular what is always a poignant experience must be an emotional one.

Because of its popularity and the fact that we must limit the number of participants of each tour, there's always a waiting list. A few tickets for the Sunday, September 12th Black Track Tour may yet be available on a first-come, first-served basis through me and through a contact number on the Morden website, www.mordenmine.com. The proceeds go towards saving and restoring this, the last surviving above-ground monument to our legendary Island coal mining industry.

This Black Track Tour, we will not only give thought to those Vancouver Island miners of old, but to those 33 miners entombed in Chile. May they, unlike, alas, 600-plus of our own miners, soon again see the light of day.