The image of a red Ford Tempo, four door, riddled with what resembled bullet holes sticks out in Bill Muirhead’s mind.
Like a vague whisper of a dream he can’t quite recall in its entirety, it flashes in his memory like an old home movie, never quite materializing fully, but flickering just enough to remind him of its existence.
It was May 9, 1992. Just before 5:30 a.m. and Bill was among the paramedics responding to the explosion that decimated the Westray mine in Plymouth and with it, the lives of many.
“I was standing in my driveway on James Street (New Glasgow). I felt this rumble and this noise and I thought it was Maritime Steel blowing off some air. But the vibration was stronger. As soon as that happened I could hear my ambulance phone ringing. Then my home phone started ringing and I wondered who was calling me at 5 o’clock in the morning. It was Dougie Dort. He said, ‘The mine blew up. Go to the base and grab every piece of spare equipment you can find’.” At the time, Dort owned the county’s ambulance operation, Dort’s Ambulance Service, and Bill worked for him.
Bill describes the scene when he first arrived as ‘eerie’. “There were dark clouds and it was misty. I remember thinking, Oh my God. I wonder what I am going to see. What am I going to run into? I think I got there about 5:38 a.m. That stuck in my mind.”
He recalls, “When I pulled up, there was this house near the end of the driveway that had a brand new red Tempo backed in the yard and it looked like someone took a machine gun and sprayed the house and the car … that was the rocks and debris coming from the portal. It was dented and damaged and the house was, too. There was still dust and stuff coming out of the mine. We didn’t know what we were walking into.”
During those first few minutes on the scene of what would be the single greatest loss of life the paramedic had seen, one thought kept echoing through his mind. “I kept thinking about what my grandfather, Tony Shelleby, always told me: Never go underground. He was a draegerman and a miner in Pictou County at the Foord Pit.” Bill was 10 when his grandfather passed away. “That was the only reason I didn’t take a job in the mine because I was going to apply. My friend Robbie Doyle said come and work at the mine, we’ll be on the same shift. And if I did, I would have been on the same shift as Robbie.”
At that point, Bill had been a paramedic for 14 years. He says he didn’t know if they were on a rescue mission or recovery that day.
Bill pauses and clears his throat several times as he recalls that morning.
“We had very little information. I was hoping we were going to be able to take someone out of there alive. But we weren’t trained to go into a mine. So we were helpless, absolutely helpless. We couldn’t wave or salute.”
The weekend before the Westray tragedy, the county’s emergency services did a mock disaster exercise. “Ironic? We had just tried the mock disaster; it ran smoothly. And I remember calling the Aberdeen on the radio saying we have a mine disaster. Some of them thought it was another mock.”
But this was no joke.
Bill recalls waiting to help, the agonizing minutes stretching into hours. And during that time the flurry of activity, chaos and calls for help. The calls came in from everywhere, he says. Individuals, companies, organizations, corporations — everyone wanting to help with gear, man power, whatever was needed.
But the minutes faded into hours and eventually into days. Bill’s skills as a paramedic would not be needed. There were no survivors.
“On Sunday we got the call that they were going to start removing bodies. Doug and I went to the portal, went about 20 feet in. We just looked down the slope and we never spoke a word. I still remember that eerie look of the tractors coming up with the headlights on and you could see the body bags through the headlights.”
It’s an image that he can’t forget, 25 years later. It’s an image, he says, that has scarred him for life.
“From that I’ve been diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For weeks and months at a time I would cry uncontrollably. I just couldn’t deal with it. We were never properly debriefed from that… We self-medicated with Captain Morgan. I had nightmares. I will never be fixed from that. That’s just something I’ll have to bear. And I deal with PTSD every day. A lot of things will build up and we just didn’t know what it was. Now that we’re better educated in the road to mental health we understand better. It was a hard thing…”
The experience took a personal toll of a different sort. With ragged breath, Bill says, “I lost a friend, Robbie Doyle. Life is precious and you gotta experience it every day. Robbie was there and then he was gone. The world is so busy, we’re all so busy doing whatever … I never forgot him, never will.”
Bill pays homage to the friends he lost that day by attending the memorial service on May 9. He goes every year and will be there this year for the 25th remembrance ceremony.
He draws comfort as well, from the knowledge that, while 26 miners died tragically and needlessly, their deaths have brought about a change for the positive that has implications for the entire country. The Westray Bill.
“We have safety regulations now. These miners tragically died,” he shakes his head, “but out of that, we have safety regulations which have saved lives. The new regulations we have for occupational health and safety, how everybody is included in safety, how everybody is trained in safety, everybody knows their responsibilities of safety. So that has made the world a safer place.”
Bill Muirhead, wearing the same Dorts Ambulance Services Ltd. uniform he wore on May 9, 1992 responding to the Westray mine explosion. (Jardine photo)