Westray Monument Powerful Reminder

by Peter Duffy

This column appeared in
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald
Thursday, February 19, 1998

Sitting here, gazing at the Westray monument, my courage is ebbing. I may not have enough left to express what it is I've come here to say.

Actually, I felt my nerve start to fail me when I was in nearby Stellarton, parked outside the Westray mine itself.

It looks so peaceful, those neat blue and white buildings still standing as though nothing bad had happened here. But six years ago come May, something terrible did happen. Twenty-six miners died somewhere beneath my feet in an explosion of methane gas. BOOM! All those lives just ... gone.

The place is deserted now, just a couple of security guards and some stray cats. I hear the guards haven't even bothered to name the cats, symptomatic of the pervading sadness.

I'm here at the invitation of Debbie and Allen Martin from nearby Riverton. Allen, 46, is a trustee of the memorial park which contains the granite Westray monument. He works at the Kimberley-Clark pulp mill in Pictou Landing. Debbie's a student aide in the school system.

Both are deeply involved with the Westray Families Group. It's people fighting to keep Westray and its lessons in our collective consciousness. And that's what I need to talk about.

I have a dreadful confession to make. Moved as I was by the tragedy, I've reached saturation point with Westray. Inside, I'm silently screaming enough!

Westray has become like a wound that never heals. I'm exhausted from bleeding for so long. No one can bring those men back. Everyone has been heard from and now it's over. So please please, set me free; I need to move on. And that's what I've come to tell the unsuspecting Allen and Debbie.

I've come early, intending to stretch my legs, but a biting February wind knifing across the undisturbed snow traps me inside the Herald van. I cower until Allen arrives, then step shivering outside to greet my grey-bearded host.

Allen tours me around the flat, two-acre park and gives me its history. The site was donated by the Shaw family of Shaw Brick fame. It used to be a dump, but volunteers turned it into this special place. Around the periphery are planted twenty flowering crab trees and six maples. At the centre broods the monument itself.

I gaze around. "But why here of all places?" I ask.

Allen says this spot is half-way between where they found most of the bodies and where the rest are supposed to be, about 350 metres below us.

"Ah yes," I mumble. "I'd forgotten that they never did get them all up."

Allen nods. Twenty-six killed, eleven bodies still down there.

We crunch across the snow to the monument. Its focal point is an oblong chunk of marble into which is carved a miner's lamp. Rays of light spill from it and each ray bears the name of a dead miner. My eyes seek out the ages. The youngest was 22, the oldest 56. Not old, in the scheme of things.

I read the names. One is Glenn David Martin.

"My brother," Allen says softly. He was 35, he adds, and he was never found. He lies down there, forever just two days short of his birthday.

"They were all just working people, like you and me," says Allen. "Now they're basically abandoned by the system."

Does he think they'll ever get them out?

"I don't think they'll go down for them," he shrugs, "but if another mine opens, it'll be the same seam."

As small and flat as this memorial park is, Allen says it needs constant care. Especially the floodlights. For some reason, the bulbs keep failing. Four have blown in the last 18 months at $86 apiece. Now two more.

The trees, too, are finding it hard here. All but six of the original plantings have been replaced. They've succumbed to insects, the clay soil and even careless drivers.

Now Debbie arrives and the three of us stand for a moment, letting the quiet wash over us. Nearby, half-covered by snow, lies a solitary wreath.

Debbie says the park attracts as many as sixty people a day in the summer. They come from as far away as British Columbia.

"We can be here at seven o'clock in the morning," she adds, "and there are people here."

"This is a powerful place," I murmur, shivering.

Debbie suggests we go find a cup of tea to warm us. Good idea. I need time to reconsider making my anti-Westray confession. Do these two dedicated people really need to hear it?

The caring thing to do would be to simply bite my tongue and go quietly back to Halifax.

Unfortunately, I know myself better than that...

Westray Families Still Pursue Justice, Change

by Peter Duffy

This column appeared in
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald
Saturday, February 21, 1998

The tea is so welcome. We've been almost an hour in a February wind so cruel it threatened to take our ears off.

Now, safe inside a coffee shop, the three of us clasp our mugs, grateful to feel the warmth seep back into our frozen fingers.

My companions are Allen and Debbie Martin from nearby Riverton. We've just come from the Westray Memorial Park, two acres of Nova Scotia forever dedicated to the 26 miners killed in the 1992 mine blast.

Allen has a particular connection with Westray; he lost his younger brother, Glenn, in the explosion. Glenn's still down there, along with ten buddies.

Allen is a trustee of the memorial park. He's also a member, with Debbie, of the Westray Families Group. It's dedicated to ensuring what happened here doesn't fade from Nova Scotia's consciousness.

As we sit, thawing out, they invite me to browse through a photo album they have with them. It traces the history of the park and construction of the large granite memorial at its centre. One photo shows the freshly poured foundation with Allen standing alongside. He's writing a message in the still-wet cement. My throat constricts as I read it. It says, simply and poignantly, "Hi Glenn."

Closing the album, I mention how difficult it was to find my way to the park.

"How come New Glasgow doesn't erect signs?" I ask.

Well actually, says Debbie, the town has put up a couple. They just aren't that easy to spot because they don't match the signs on the highway.

Listening to Allen and Debbie, it soon dawns on me that all is not well between the town and this Westray group. Understandable, I guess. Who wants to be known for such a negative event?

"Officials hope it'll go away," Allen shrugs.

On the other hand, he says, Pictou County and Stellarton have always been helpful.

But Allen and Debbie don't seem to be people who hold grudges. They're trying to understand New Glasgow's hesitation.

"At the time of the explosion and the first months, New Glasgow gave plenty," says Allen. "They have contributed, and very generously, too."

Maybe they gave so much at the explosion, he muses, that they have no more to give. But even so, there's a bigger picture to consider.

"People still have a lot of healing to do," he reflects.

I interrupt him. Speaking of healing, I murmur, there's something I need to share. The real reason I came up here today.

"Forgive me for saying this, but I've reached the point where I simply can't bear to hear about Westray any more. I just want it to go away now so I can get on with my life."

I plow on before my courage can fail me.

"Sure, I was shocked when all those men were killed. Yes, I felt terrible for the families. But for heaven's sake, it was nearly six years ago, and still people are picking at the wound."

Running out of steam, I fall silent, braced for their outrage. But it doesn't come. Instead, they smile.

"I think everyone feels like that at times," Allen says gently. "People in our own families say, 'Why do you keep it up? Let it go. Give yourself some peace.' But I can't."

"Right from the beginning," says Debbie, "there were families who didn't want anything to do with the family group. 'It's done,' they said. 'Forget it!' "

Allen explains that the Westray Families Group was started with three main objectives. He lists them for me: to achieve some type of justice, to recover the bodies and to effect change.

"No more Westrays" is how he puts it. And yes, he nods, there has been some progress.

"People know they have rights," he says. "They can't be made to do unsafe things in the workplace. No one knew that before."

But even so, the Westray Families Group doesn't feel its objectives have been realized.

"We haven't had closure," Allen says softly. "None at all. My brother is still down there. Those three things are my rights; why am I being denied them?"

Allen wants his brother buried properly.

"My mother is very religious ... and it's killing her," he says. "She wants him buried in proper consecrated ground."

This is not negotiable.

"They spent $115 million to blow the place up." he says. "Why not spend a couple of million more to get them out?"

Allen vows there will never be surrender on the three conditions. In fact, he adds, that's how people should be looking at

Westray now.

"It happened," he says, "and the same type of circumstances (remain) in Nova Scotia."

It's no longer a coal mine issue, he says. Anyone who works anywhere needs protection.

He tells me he and Debbie have two daughters. They're at university, but one day they'll be in the workforce.

"We want them to be safe," he says.

Mutely, I nod. How could I have imagined I'd heard enough about Westray when I've obviously heard so little?

Peter Duffy's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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