Free Press Staff
Life wasn’t easy for Susan Schmitz’ family, after her great-grandfather, William Puckey was killed in the Coal Creek Mine Disaster.
“There was great hardship, they didn’t have compensation,” said Schmitz, whose great-grandmother was left to tend to five children, ages eight to 16, as a widow.
As soon as the boys were old enough, they too worked in the mine where their father was killed.
“Five years later, they lost their son to the mine,” said Schmitz. The family had moved to B.C. from England, and all their family was back there.
On April 5, 1917, at 10:30 a.m., a massive coal dust explosion ripped through the No. 3 mine, killing the 34 men working inside.
It was weeks before the bodies of all the men could be recovered, many of which left behind wives and children.
Over 100 years later, the BC Labour Heritage Centre, in partnership with the United Steelworkers and East Kootenay District of Labour unveiled a plaque in Fernie to commemorate the disaster.
“We’re the ones that pay the price when profit outweighs health and safety,” said Steve Kallies, with the local union 9346 United Steelworkers.
The miners knew that working two shifts in the mine created a build up of gas—which led to the devastating explosion on April 5.
The workers went on strike after the accident, demanding that the operations be changed to one shift.
“We are coal miners, and we stand together,” said Kallies, adding that to this day, unions must remain vigilant for workers’ safety and rights.
Eventually a resolution was met, after the walk-out and bitter, prolonged negotiations with the mining company, officials and government representatives.
The miners were fighting against old British ideologies around coal mining, like how inspectors would only visit the outside of the mine, because the underground “ was no place fit for a gentleman,” said Gary Taje, a western regional representative of the United Mineworkers.
“Coalminers were a class of people that didn’t deserve to be protected,” he said, noting that since that time, an incredible amount of progress has been made not only in ideology, but also in operating practices.
“That progression wasn’t easy,” said Taje. “It came through hard work…strong and hard negotiations with the companies.”
While some compensation was given to families devastated by the explosion, the effects of the incident haunted generations.
“After that, there was no other miners in the family until now, my son and my son-in-law work in the mine,” said Schmitz, noting that after the disaster, there was two generations of her family that did not work at the mine.
Schmitz’ grandmother was 16-years-old when her father was killed in the explosion.
“Most of what she talked about was the sadness and the grief because they couldn’t get the body out for quite a while,” said Schmitz. “Just the torment of hoping that he’s alive, but knowing he’s not.”
Now, the younger generations of her family are back at the mines, because they want to stay in the Elk Valley, and build a life here.
“I think the conditions are much safer now, because of all that’s gone on,” said Schmitz.