When there is crisis or need, Pictou County really comes together.
This was evidenced on May 9, 1992 when 26 miners perished in the Westray coal mine in a massive underground explosion.
The blast that rocked this coal mining community — and the lives of virtually everyone in it — reverberated around the world as family and friends of the trapped miners as well as rescuers and media arrived in Plymouth waiting for a miracle.
And as people gathered to wait, to hope and to pray, the entire community rallied together to provide food, supplies, accommodations and good old-fashioned comfort to those who were hurting.
In 1992, Robert “Red” and Cheryl MacKean owned both the Peter Pan Motel and the Tara Motel; they still have the Tara today. In mid-May of that year, their hotels were filled, as were most of the other accommodations in the area. Filled with anxious family members of the trapped miners and with representatives of Westray mine and Curragh Resources.
The MacKeans remember the Westray explosion and the days that followed with certain clarity. They were involved in organizing accommodations for Westray families, providing food for those who needed it and, in many ways, offering a shoulder to cry on.
“I remember being awakened at the time of the explosion but not knowing what it was,” Red said. “We looked at the clock at the time and it was 5:20.” The MacKeans lived at that time on Birch Hill Drive in Stellarton, about a kilometre away from the mine, as the crow flies.
Cheryl added, “And I don’t even think a noise woke us; I think we just woke up.”
Later that morning they heard on the radio that there had been an explosion at the mine. Red, a former newspaper reporter, jumped in his vehicle and headed over to Blue Acres, only to find the road blocked. He wasn’t sure what he would do when he got there, but he was certain, “I was going to see if there was any way I could help.”
There was not. At least, not at that time and place.
“Some time the following day I received a phone call to look after accommodations for the draegermen that were coming in.”
The draegermen came from all over. “They were all put in the Tara Motel and then eventually, over the next day or two, I was asked to co-ordinate all the rooms in Pictou County, accommodations for the miners’ families that were being brought in and any other officials that were coming in. Every motel in Pictou County was used.”
Red noted, “I can say that Westray was very accommodating to anybody that wanted to come that had a loved one involved in the explosion. They didn’t turn anyone away — whether it was a brother or sister or parent. And I thought at the time it was a very kind gesture.”
Their son, Mike, who was a university student working in the family businesses at the time recalled, “We even moved some of the officials from Pictou Lodge closer to town so they could be nearer the mine.”
And by “move,” Mike meant that literally. He and his sister Shauna, just 20 and 18 at the time, drove to Pictou Lodge and packed up the belongings of the mine representatives and drove them into a motel closer to the mine.
Red recalled, “At the time, I had access to the mine site and although I was not in on meetings per se, being on site I heard what had been discussed and I knew when it went from a rescue to a recovery. I drove the last group of draegermen from the mine to the Tara Motel. They had to be the toughest, bravest men I ever met and they were all crying like babies. Only because they didn’t want to give up the search, but they were told they had to because there was no more hope and that it was for their own safety… But they didn’t want to quit.”
The emotion of that day was evident on Red’s face 25 years later.
“It was pretty emotional. I was very emotional. The whole town was emotional.”
But its people still pulled together.
Mike recalled, “As emotional an event that it was, in the moment you’re just trying to do whatever you can.”
Red nodded. “The whole community wanted to help.”
And help came from literally everywhere.
Mike said, “I remember going over to the Comfort Inn because they were lending cots that would be taken wherever they needed to go; some went to the Tara, some went to the mine site.”
And at the time, there was no concern with the cost of anything. “There was no thought of who was paying for motel rooms, no thought of who was paying for the food… people did what they had to do. Everything was done that had to be done and everybody wanted to help. It could be making sandwiches, it could be peeling potatoes, looking after kids in the Sharon church hall. People just wanted to help,” Red said.
Looking back now, the Caribou River resident noted, “I remember at the time that growing up in a mining community I couldn’t help but think back to when the mine explosions were in Stellarton and at the Allan Shaft of what the community must have gone through then too, and it gave me insight as to what life must have been like … I was just a kid and I really have no recollection of that. But it brought it all home.”
Mike was young at the time of the Westray tragedy as well and he admits the gravity of the situation really didn’t register at first.
“I remember one of you,” he gestured to his parents, “coming into my bedroom and saying there was an explosion at the mine. At that point it was hard to comprehend.”
But comprehension came soon afterward and had the staying power of a quarter of a century for Mike. He broke down with raw emotion at the recollection and his father, equally emotional, pointed out: “This is an example… it shows you just how bad it was. It was 25 years ago and we still have these deep emotions about it.”
In the days following the explosion, Mike said people were in shock and no one was sure just what to do.
“The day of the explosion I was working back shift at the Tara and we knew there would be people coming. I recall at the time there’d be four draegermen in a room and as soon as two left for their shifts we’d strip the beds and clean up the room for the two coming back. Everybody just jumped in and we did what we had to do. Plus we fed them all.” There was a restaurant at the motel at the time.
“I remember one of the wholesalers came over with a couple of cases of cigarettes for the guys and just dropped them off. And again, there was no money, they weren’t looking for any money. They were just stepping up to do what they had to do.”
Mike had friends who worked in the mine. “At the time, I was also bar tending at Mulligans, so there would have been a lot of the guys that would come in after their shift and have a drink on the way home, so there was certainly a lot of people I knew. At the time, you’re thinking about people but you don’t really have any concept of who …”
It didn’t take long for the enormity of the situation to hit.
“I remember hearing that CNN was coming to town,” Mike said. “Here’s CNN coming to little old Pictou County! That was very early in the 24-hour news cycle. It just dominated the media.”
Cheryl noted, “It dominated the whole country.”
As each day closed, hope grew dimmer. “Everyone snapped into gear asking what can we do?” Cheryl recalled making many, many trays of sandwiches to take to the Plymouth Fire Hall where families waited to hear news of their loved ones.
Food was also plentiful at the motel. Mike recalled, “We had a normal operation, a restaurant, that was all of a sudden running 24 hours. I remember one night in the middle of the night cooking hamburgers for the men.”
It was during these late-night feeding sessions that the MacKeans would chat quietly with the draegermen over a cup of coffee. “There were times when the place was quiet and you might have a couple of guys come in and sit at the counter and have a bite and sometimes just talk about nothing,” Mike said.
Idle chit-chat kept the conversation away from the matter at hand.
“I don’t think the average person had any idea what those draegermen went through,” Red said. “One draegerman described to me that in order just to get where those men were it was like climbing a small mountain underground, everything was piled up so high. But generally speaking they didn’t go into too many details.”
Mike recalled the day the search for the miners was called off. “I certainly remember when they made the announcement that they were done. Being at the restaurant at the motel that day, it was just like the air kind of got sucked out of the building. I think, you push through the emotional side of things until that moment and then all of a sudden it just kind of lets go.”
In a husky voice, deep with emotion and tears rolling down his face Mike choked out, “I just remember these grown men that were tough as nails and they’d come in, still dirty from doing their job, to see them break down at that point. I remember seeing these grown men crying … That’s the part I remember the most.”
Red and Cheryl MacKean with son Mike, right, look through notes in Cheryl’s daily journal from May 9, 1992. (Jardine photo)