May Their Lights Always Shine: the 100th anniversary of the 1909 Extension Mine Disaster

by Rick Morgan

“Can you come to Extension Colliery immediately and report on recent explosion for information of Provincial Government? Wire reply”

The explosion referred to occurred in the No 2 West mine at Extension on the morning of October 5th between 8:30 and 9:00 AM 100 years ago this year. 32 lives were lost.

The recipient of the telegram, James Ashworth, General Manager of Operations for Crows Nest Pass Coal Company at Fernie was one of three people whom Richard McBride, Provincial Mines Minister and Premier contacted carry out the investigation, Each investigator was asked to provide a separate report as to cause along with recommendations in preparation for the inquest in Ladysmith which commenced on October 20th.

The other members of the investigative team were William Fleet Robinson, Provincial Mineralogist and Francis H Shepherd, Chief Inspector of Mines. Mr. Shepherd had been in Nanaimo on the day of the accident and he and the District Inspector, Archibald Dick had gone immediately to the mine on hearing about the explosion. This did not happen for some four and a half hours after and only came to light when Mr. Shepherd phoned the mine after hearing rumors of an accident.

The investigation took place October 13th to 16th, the first priority being to recover the bodies and restore ventilation in the mine.

The Community of Ladysmith was in a state of shock in the days following the explosion. They received news of the accident shortly after 9 PM when the train from Extension arrived to take Dr Frost and rescuers back to the mine site. The trainmen were given strict orders not to let anyone else on the train returning to Extension so as not to hamper rescue efforts.

Only slowly, over the next two days, as the bodies were recovered did friends and family learn the fate of their loved ones. The mother of Fred Ingham, one of the victims, had now lost three sons in separate mining accidents. Herman Peterson, another victim, only lost his wife a few weeks before. His death left three young daughters and two sons as orphans.

False hopes were raised amongst the rescuers that someone may still be alive in the mine. On clearing away some debris, the rescuers were startled when “Bess” the bay mule charged passed them. The terrified animal ran up the slope and out into the fresh air, the only mule in the affected area of the mine to survive.

Rescuers worked tirelessly to recover the victims, often almost loosing consciousness themselves due to the deadly afterdamp. Each pile of debris or fall of rock or top coal had to be cleared away to see if any bodies lay underneath. The last bodies were removed from the mine on the morning of October 7th.

Extension Colliery was considered a “safe” mine as far as being “gassy”, so much so that naked lights were permitted in the affected area. The last report of explosive gas in this section of the mine was on August 14th, 1909. The Fireman’s Report of 6:30 AM on the morning of the explosion indicated all working places in good condition. The district mines inspector, Archibald Dick had last visited the mine on September 6th and failed to find any trace of explosive gas.

Studies produced at the inquest showed that the average official could not recognize a distinct blue cap over the flame in a safety lamp indicating the existence of gas below the 2% level.

The explosion itself was fairly localized and did not produce a great deal of damage. Only one fatality was attributed directly to the force of the explosion, that of Milos, a labourer on No 3 West level. His body was found 10 or 12 yards from where his boot was found possibly held fast by a track-frog. The force had torn his right foot out of the boot, breaking his right fibula. His body was propelled by such force that the top of his skull was terribly fractured causing immediate death.

The remaining 31 fatalities succumbed to CO poisoning following the explosion. Rescuers reported finding victims with their hands covering their faces in a last desperate attempt to block out the deadly gas which would snuff out their lives. A number of the victims were found away from their workings. Something had frightened them prior to the explosion.

While not a gassy mine, the structure of the coal seam was very friable. Falls of rock and top coal were frequent. This was before the availability of rock bolting and was the major cause of accidents.

Further evidence brought forth at the inquest showed that the existence of any gas below the 2% level although not considered dangerous, could become explosive due to any sudden change in pressure. A cave in could also bring down firedamp trapped in the roof layers.

There had been one major cave on the morning of the explosion extending some 515 feet along No. 2 ˝ level, the fallen material coming from a “ roll” or faulty condition of the seam and overlying strata.

Investigators Shepherd and Robinson were of the opinion that this caused the explosion and the verdict of the inquest upheld this opinion indicating that it was totally unforeseen therefore exonerating the company from any wrongdoing.

Mr. Ashworth, on the other hand, was convinced that there were “other and prior manifestations of force preceding this cave”. He cited a shot in No 29 room of No 3 West level and the blowing of the man Milos out of his boot. If the shot in No 29 room was the initial cause then it was clear the ventilation was too small in volume to keep the mine clear of gas.

The exact cause which triggered the explosion will no doubt remain entombed in the bowels of the Extension mine forever. The colliery was closed permanently in 1932.

It is difficult to conceive anything positive resulting from this catastrophe however largely due to the Extension Explosion and three separate gas explosions at Carbonado Colliery in Morrissey, the Coal Mines Regulation Act was completely rewritten mandating amongst other things, the establishment of provincial mine rescue stations around the province. This marked the beginning of formalized mine rescue in British Columbia


Sources:

1909 Annual Report of the Minister of Mines Victoria BC, http://library.uvic.ca/site/lib/dig/diginit.html
British Colonist http://www.coalking.ca/challenges/prevention_rescue.html



LIST OF PERSONS KILLED IN THE EXTENSION EXPLOSION, OCTOBER 5TH, 1909

No.NameOccupationAgeNationalityDoctor's Remarks
1Andrew MoffattBratticeman42ScotchNo burns, CO.
2Thomas O'ConnellMiner27IrishNo burns, CO.
3Jas. MolyneuxMiner36EnglishNo burns, CO.
4Thomas ThomasMiner29WelshSlightly burned on back of hands
5Alex. Milanich (Milos)Labourer28………………..Fractured skull and right leg. No burns.
6Harold TaylorLabourer30EnglishSeverely burned on face, neck, and hands
7William KeserichMiner38SlavonianNo burns, CO.
8Geo. BodovinacMiner25AustrianNo burns, CO.
9Robert MarshallPusher25ScotchSlight burns on face, chest, and hands.
10Wm. RobinsonMiner35ScotchSlight burns on face, chest, and hands.
11Peter NislandPusher39EnglishD? ? On back of hand
12John EwartPusher38…………………Slightly burned on face.
13Charles ScheffLabourer27ScandinavianSlightly burned on face.
14W. A. SelburnLabourer45AmericanBurned on face, neck, and hands.
15William QuinnDriver18CanadianFace burned, gloves on hands.
16Alex. KeserichMiner21AustrianSeverely burned on face, neck, and leftside, chest, and hands.
17William DavidsonDriver17…………………Slightly burned on face and hands.
18Edward DunnDriver17CanadianSlightly burned on face and hands.
19Fred InghamBratticeman23AmericanNo burns, CO.
20Winyard SteelePusher25AmericanNo burns, CO.
21Alex. McClellanDriver36ScotchNo burns, CO.
22Robert WhiteMiner46ScotchNo burns, CO.
23John IsbisterTracklayer48CanadianNo burns, CO.
24John BuliahMiner34AustrianSlightly burned on face and hands.
25Mike GustavLoader30AustrianBurns on back of neck and hands.
26Oscar NymanPusher28…………………No burns, CO.
27Charles SaloLoader30HungarianNo burns, CO.
28Thompson ParkinMiner27AmericanNo burns, CO.
29Todd RomboviaMiner42AustrianNo burns, CO. (1st degree burns).
30John WargoMiner43SlavonianBurned on face, neck, and hands.
31Mike DancelovichRunner25AustrianBurned on face, neck, and hands.
32Herman PetersenMiner43DaneNo burns, CO.