Feb 7, 2024
Roy was in the Michel Creek Valley mines for 13 years and he saw a lot.
The only time Roy Lazzarotto ever got hurt was when he slipped on ice and broke his leg while getting off a mine bus. Otherwise, he remained uninjured through his whole working career. His philosophy was, “If you’re taught the proper way for safety, which I believe in that, first is safety, then the work. But safety first.”
In an interview he stated, “In my time, I had a crew all the time, men working under me, and nobody got hurt. Nobody. That’s because I follow the way I was taught.” You can be sure that if any one of his crew had ever got hurt he would have taken that very personally, so he was all business when it came to mining coal.
As I mentioned last week Roy was in the Michel Creek Valley mines for 13 years and he saw a lot. When he was in the hospital with his heart acting up in 2012, I sat and talked to him and, not being certain about the gravity of his condition, chose to audio record our conversations. I don’t think he was aware that I was doing that, so out of respect for him I will not share some of the hair-raising things that came out. Suffice to say he dealt with a lot of heartache at some of the tragic events that unfolded in his career there.
Roy said to me from his hospital bed that night, “Sit down Jack, we gonna talk.” Then he proceeded to relate some of the situations he found himself in and the choices he made around them. It is a story that a few others have heard and part of his legacy is referred to as the Three Times saga. While lying there he held his hand up with three fingers and said, “Tree times Jack, tree times I decide it’s too dangerous and refuse to work in the place. And each time it probably save my life.” I knew it would be a straight up “that’s how it was” conversation and that he wanted to reveal to me those three occasions that happened in three different mines.
They were scenarios in which Roy sized up how the mining was proceeding and the level of safety present and chose to walk away. This was not an easy thing for a respected and highly qualified miner like Roy to do but his instincts were strong and his belief in safety was uncompromisable. In one instance, that astounded him, he was told to pick up his bucket and go home. And incredibly, he said, the union did not back him.
As an aside, a little research reveals that the year that Roy started in Michel there was a fatality, the first of the 42 that occurred during his time there. In 1957 a Swiss miner, Jacob Manzer, was bucking coal when a rock came down a chute like a missile and hit him right in the temple, killing him instantly. Bucking coal could be dangerous, I know, because I did it in Vicary Mine. Imagine starting work there and having that news break.
Many years later Roy had just come off day shift when Balmer North blew up in 1967. By then 15 men had died in mine accidents and that number doubled in an instant. It was a devastating event and I can’t imagine how it felt for that day shift crew to hear that news and that it could have just as easily been them. While it was hard to translate what Roy is saying with his low, strained broken English voice on the recordings, the carnage he described walking down that entry is almost imponderable. He saw 7 foot rock bolts and a shovel driven into timbers from the force of the blast. The rock tunnel entry, which I liken to the barrel of a shotgun, was where 13 of the 15 men were killed while heading into their afteroon shift places.
Roy was involved, along with the draegerman, in the response to this catastrophic explosion and saw things no man should ever see. He said he was sick for two weeks after that. He always claimed to be lucky and sometimes it wasn’t decisions but more about not being where he could have been when things went wrong. Explosions, fires, floods, cave-ins, the threat was always present and he knew it well and knew when it was not safe. Roy walked away from Balmer North, literally, and would not go back into that mine.
The Balmer South flood of 1969 is a well documented story in which three men were lost and three were trapped for 84 hours. Roy said he refused to work in the place just prior to the disaster and incredibly, shortly before it happened, they moved him, his crew, and his Joy mechanical miner, #765, out of the workings and put another crew in with the Lee Norse miner. He was there once again for the aftermath of that terrible flood and the subsequent search and was once again witness to some heartbreaking discoveries. He worked with the crews that, for 15 hours, frantically drove a connecting tunnel into where they suspected trapped miners Frank Kutcher, Donald Evans and John Krall were holed up and ultimately rescued.
Another of his decisions, he claims, was made in a mine called A North where dust, high levels of methane and a recalled memory of ten sets of timber catching fire was mentioned. Fire underground can be absolutely deadly. He was having none of that.
Roy had had his fill of Michel and in 1970 went to work in Vicary Mine north of Coleman as a first operator, trainer and fire boss. He claims he was the one to cut the very last ton of coal there before they shut the mine down in 1978. He then went back to BC where he worked outside on reclamation for Westar until finally retiring.
During his reclamation time he was asked to go back underground at Balmer #1, the hydraulic mine, which was a unique development that used high pressure water to cut coal. Roy had worked there during development stages but what he saw there was disturbing, with a ventilation system he felt was not working (short-circuited) and a gas threat. Roy refused the work and sadly, in January of 1983, there was a terrible incident there in which Martin Hruby and Jack Doddsley were killed. That one was number three for Roy.
It was in 1988, after two heart attacks, that Roy retired and eventually, a couple of years later took on the three year Bellevue Mine restoration project, something he said he was very proud of, and rightly so. Because of his efforts and skills, along with others, we have a one-of-a-kind tour mine where anyone can see how it all was back then.
As a mining historian, who has studied in-depth so many instances like Balmer North and South, I found that if I dug deep enough it always seemed to come out, especially from the miners themselves, that things were not right. Balmer North was not properly ventilated to handle the huge volumes of coal dust that those mechanical miners generated. And despite what reports say there was a gas issue.
In the case of the hydraulic mine, the ventilation system was not working properly, and improper or poor ventilation can be deadly. Gas buildups can be triggered by a spark and the resulting explosion becomes multiplied exponentially by the coal dust in the air. The rolling blast will continue until it has exhausted itself and leaves behind carnage and toxic gases. And because the explosion is confined, its power does not diminish through long distances.
There are engineering specifics as to how ventilation should be designed and maintained and it is the responsibility of mine management to ensure that proper volumes of fresh air are available and monitored and are moving in such a way as to dilute and remove gases with the return air.
The inquests held after fatalities left coal miners very cynical back then. For just about every fatality one was held and for the Michel Creek Valley mines there could have been 181 of them. There was never any blame attached, no one ever went to jail or was charged. Inquests were restricted only to cause of death and in some instances recommendations made for changes. In some of those instances the changes should have happened long before the incident.
It is because of the terrible management negligence that occurred at Westray in 1992 that unions across Canada, like the United Steel Workers of America 7884 Fording River, pressed for and finally got Bill C-45, the Westray Bill, passed into law on March 31, 2004. An amendment to the Criminal Code now provides new rules for attributing criminal liability to organizations, including corporations, their representatives and those who direct the work of others.
I am fairly certain that had that bill been in effect decades ago charges would have been brought in some instances, especially Westray. Yes Roy Lazzarotto, I can see you nodding your head and this and saying, “ You got dat right Jack.”