NEW GLASGOW – Preparing to mark the 25th anniversary of the Westray mine disaster has unearthed many memories for Glen Matheson.
Now retired, Matheson was a minister at First Presbyterian Church and one of the pastors who were busy actively comforting people after the explosion that killed 26 miners on May 9, 1992.
He’s been busy recently composing a reflection for the evening service that is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at Westray Miners Memorial Park in Walkerville.
Matheson will address the gathering, while wreaths will be laid for the 26 deceased miners at 7:15 p.m.
The Men of the Deeps, who also sang at the 20th anniversary service, will sing several times during the service. One of the selections will be Their Lights Will Shine, a song written by local musician Ron MacDonald.
Premier Stephen McNeil is among a series of speakers who will follow the wreath laying.
“Years ago, I’d be in the middle of it; now it’s kind of like being out of it,” he said, referring to the milestone and more modest annual services that have taken place at the park. “Some people I’ve talked to who are coming have not been here since 1992.”
The Men of the Deeps will close by singing Their Light Still Shines.
“It’s one of their most requested songs,” Matheson said.
He said what the United Steelworkers Union is organizing for the series of afternoon events on May 9 gives him less to concern himself with that evening.
“We received word a few months ago,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much it was weighing on me. It was a relief.”
One of his recollections is the sight of miner rescuers sobbing uncontrollably from the unprecedented carnage they witnessed in the mine shafts. At the time, they were shielded from media. But Matheson was among those who attempted to comfort them.
“I’d be with families and then mine officials,” he said. “For most crises, I can put a mask on and keep my emotions and facial features under control. A lot of things I thought were in the past have become very real lately.”
A reception hosted by the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour has been scheduled to follow the service around 8 p.m. or later at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton. The museum has been assembling displays on Westray and mining themes that are slated to be ready for visitors to view later this week.
Matheson is among those who feel the 25th anniversary commemoration of Westray is a cue to cease the annual public gatherings to allow those involved with the events to step back if they prefer.
“I doubt there will be any more services, at least for a while,” he said.
One thing that gave Matheson some solace immediately after the disaster was a message he received from people he knew in Springhill. They could identify with the fallout from the Westray explosion due to the history of fatal explosions that eventually ended underground coal mining in Springhill after the events in 1956 and 1958.
Some miners survived despite the explosions.
“About 400 people were at the fire hall in Springhill,” said Matheson, who was a minister there for nine years before he came to Pictou County. “Here they were, waiting for word, waiting for miracles like Springhill had.”
Rev. Dr. Glen Matheson stands in front of the Westray monument at a previous memorial service. (Goodwin photo)