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February 22nd, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 8
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Measuring the Devil`s Breath
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Official fatality plan showing location of bodies
The 50th anniversary of the Balmer North explosion is looming ever closer (April 3rd, 1967). I came up recently in my research statistics that yet another mine disaster in the Elk Valley is about to reach its 100th anniversary on almost the same day as Balmer. The event occurred at Coal Creek and stands as the second worst mine catastrophe ever to strike the coalfields there. It is second only to Coal Creek May 22, 1902 when 130 men were snuffed out in one horrific blast.

When one looks back into the Ministry of Mines Annual Report for 1917 one finds that W.R. Puckey was the fireboss, Hugh Melarkey the pumpman and Alex Barton the motorman that fateful day. With them on afternoon shift down in the mine was a rope-rider, five drivers and 25 diggers (coal miners). 34 men in all were working up Coal Creek near Fernie, BC in a ticking timebomb known as # 3 Mine.

It was April 5, 1917 and that timebomb would eventually claim the lives of all 34 later that evening. The ticking came to an end when according to Chief Inspector of Mines, Thomas Graham, Augustus Leonard's broken safety lamp ignited methane gas 7,000 feet inside the mine. The resultant gas explosion traveled down a cross-cut and augmented by coal dust in suspension ripped through the mine with such violence that it was a year later before the last 12 of the 34 bodies were recovered. Huge lengths of entryways, considered to be first rate with very competent roofs, were badly caved for hundreds of feet.

Actually #3 mine was more like a loaded shotgun than a time bomb. Augustus Leonard's punctured lamp (the gun's hammer) ignited the methane gas (the bullet's primer), the gas flared and caused the coal dust to explode (the gunpowder goes off) and the resultant explosion roared down the entryways (the gun’s barrel).
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The body of Hugh Melarkey was found 25 feet inside the main portal where he had been thrown violently against the timbers. His Wolfe safety lamp was found days later outside in a mule pasture over 1,000 feet from the mine mouth! The mine plan in the report shows the exact location of 22 of the 34 men found and for those that carried a safety lamp it lists their name and lamp number. Hugh Melarkey’s lamp number was 1313!

A year after that black day an additional report prepared by the new chief inspector of mines, George Wilkinson, offered the following description: "August Leonard was in the act of carrying back his tools. Having too many he probably stumbled and one of the pick-points struck and penetrated the glass. It would seem probable Leonard heard the pick strike the glass, dropped his tools and raised his lamp to see what damage was done, raising it high enough to reach an accumulation of explosive gas along the roof of the place, so igniting the same, thereby causing the primary explosion. There is no doubt but that it would have been only a local inflammation of gas if the condition in the other places had not been so ripe for the propagation of the explosion throughout the mine."

At the inquest the testimony revealed that almost continuously for 30 days prior there had been from 1/2 inch to 3/4-inch gas-cap present in these places. The Wolfe safety lamp shows a blue section on top of its flame whenever gas is present, that section varying with the percentage of methane gas in the place. In 1917 it was generally thought that a 1/2-inch gas-cap equaled 2 to 21/2% methane. A new more accurate gas-detector known as a "Burrell" was introduced later that year and revealed this to be a critical misconception. The Burrell demonstrated that 1/4 inch not 1/2-inch gas-cap represented 2 1/2% methane and that 1/2-inch gas-cap equaled 3 1/2% gas.
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Local mines inspector Williams had, two weeks before the blast, measured a 3/4-inch gas-cap in the air current of the main and counter levels of #3 Mine. Good Grief! He wrote to Mine Manager Caufield of this condition stating that gas levels were unacceptable and requested that steps be taken to improve ventilation and that only one shift of eight hours out of the 24 could be worked in these places until the situation was rectified.

William's findings on March 23 were explained away by the company who claimed that a controlling door was broken back then and that the ventilation was deranged. Yet miners at the end of morning shift that April 5th reported a 3/4-inch gas-cap. That meant there was well over 4% methane in the air current that the afternoon shift started up in.

Inquiries and inquests back then always seemed to ignore the issues at hand and mask to some extent the real problem. Having read dozens of these "official reports" from Balmer 1967 to Coal Creek 1902 I found the story is always the same. I'll leave it to you to decide why and how it is that no coal company or any of its officials were ever charged in any Elk Valley mining disaster, large or small.

In all fairness I should add that many improvements were inaugurated into coal mines after the #3 Mine incident. The introduction of the Edison electric mine lamp was probably one of the most significant and Crowsnest Pass mines installed 960 of them that year alone. Of course the Burrell gas detector was incorporated then also. It was capable of measuring as low as 1/10 of 1% of methane and all inspectors and Crowsnest Pass mines were equipped with them.

Unlike the Wolfe safety lamp the Burrell, invented in 1915, used an Edison belt-worn battery similar to those used in the hat lamps to operate the methane tester. A measured sample of mine air is drawn into a tube and mixed with water and this mixture is heated by a platinum filament. Any contraction in volume after burning indicates methane and the gauge on the device shows the concentration.
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Other issues given more attention that year were specific treatments of coal-dust and protection from electrical storms through the use of lightning arrestors at mine mouths. It also became a rule in force in Pass mines that the workmen must be withdrawn when the percentage of gas in the air is over 2 1/2%. It seems that sometimes it takes disaster to bring about change. You know. The old rule. How many die in a cross-walk before they put in a set of lights?

In Saint Margaret’s Cemetery in Fernie one can find several markers of men killed is this terrible incident. Having studied this cemetery for many years I can tell you that the headstones of those lost in mining accidents tend to stand out in design and significance. It is a sobering experience to wander amongst the 4,488 markers. I found a few of the 1917 disaster victims buried there including brothers Jules and Henry Falip, French born coal miners. Henry was 34, Jules was 37. Jules’ 28 year old wife Marie was buried next to him a year later and was a victim of the 1918 Spanish flu, another disaster that took 59 lives in three months in Fernie. I also found next to Jules a small marker with a lamb on top for a six month old baby of Marie’s named Madeline.

It seems that the days of this colorless, odourless mining menace of four part hydrogen and one part carbon are mercifully over. Now all we have to do if figure out a way to deal with the 120 kilograms of methane per year per animal emitted by the 1.5 billion cows and bulls world-wide.

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February 22nd, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 8
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