NOTE: This article was originally published on the 25th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster. We are republishing it today in recognition of the 28th anniversary …
Doug Dort has seen more tragedy and heartache than he could ever recall.
As a fire fighter and an emergency medical technician of 46 years, it is a part of his life.
But he has never seen tragedy on as large a scale as on Saturday, May 9, 1992 — the day 26 miners lost their lives in an explosion at the Westray coal mine in Plymouth.
At that time, Dort and his wife Isabelle had been operating Dort’s Ambulance Services Ltd., a private ambulance service, for two years.
“I can recall the day and what we did at that time,” Dort said, the memories forever etched in his mind.
The call for help came shortly after 5:18 a.m. when the explosion ripped through the mine. Dort’s first ambulance was there within minutes, from home base on East River Road to the mine site in Plymouth.
“I was on the second one that arrived five to seven minutes later.”
The Plymouth Fire Department was arriving at the same time as the ambulances.
At the base of the driveway to the mine was a house that is still there today. “We had to clear the driveway going up into the mine because of the debris that came up through the portal and covering the whole back of the house,” Dort explained.
“That debris was blown all over the place,” he said, opening a scrapbook of newspaper clippings he saved from the extensive local, national and international news coverage at the time. “All the nuts and bolts (from the roof covering of the portal) were all over the driveway. It was such a violent event.”
Within 15-20 minutes he had all six ambulances staffed and on scene.
“I kind of expected that there was going to be no survivors by the look of the damage that was on the surface and thinking what it would be like down in the hole. I really felt there would be no survivors at all,” he said quietly.
“As an EMT of 21 years, I was quite prepared to do what we were trained to do, but I didn’t feel there was going to be any survivors.”
Dort, who is the fire chief in New Glasgow and is often relied upon for support because of his level-headedness and take-charge demeanor, said waiting to help was painful.
“We weren’t trained to go in the mine. The waiting process… We were at the mercy of the mine people. You never train for mining incidences in the fire service so it was basically leaving it up to them to tell us what was going on in the mine.”
Hours dragged on and more help arrived — everyone from draegermen to fire fighters, medical personnel to mining experts, all converged in tiny Plymouth, hoping for a miracle. The increase in support above ground was paralleled with the lost hope that survivors would be brought out. Dort said as the flow of information to the public ebbed to barely a trickle, his role became co-ordinating the medical personnel who arrived to help. For several days, he transported doctors and nurses in shifts to the mine site.
On May 15 when Westray officials announced the search for the missing miners would cease due to dangerous underground conditions, Dort felt depleted, sad and angry.
“We were never interviewed during that whole process — any of my EMT staff. We were among the first ones on the scene but they didn’t ask even for a statement.”
That memory has stuck with the fire chief for a quarter of a century. But it has faded somewhat. Today, he said, he is not so much affected by what he saw and experienced during the Westray tragedy.
“Not unless I bring up the subject and talk about it,” he explained. “Fortunately, I’m not one that carries that stuff too much. Obviously, in 46 years you learn to deal with these things. But while I have been able to deal with it, a lot of the other EMTs and fire fighters carried the issues with them for a long time and remember it every May 9.”
He paused. “Does it affect me? It’s a bad memory. I can’t say that it affects my daily life, but I often think about it. I think about what could have been there, if it was done right. And I think about the ones that were left down there; they should have been recovered, but it would have taken a long time.”
Out of the tragedy came a need for change, a focus on workplace safety. And Dort has seen a marked change in safety in the years since Westray with the implementation of Bill C-45, the Westray Bill.
Dort said, “In our particular case here in the town, safety conscious is paramount. Everything revolves around safety. Every time we go out the door with the fire trucks, it starts with safety right then, from driving to the scene to being on the scene. Everything is safety orientated.”
Looking back over the past 25 years, Dort feels if there was any good that could be had from the tragedy that rocked Pictou County all those years ago, it was that.