On Monday, over 400 people attended a ceremony in Sparwood’s Titan Park to observe the 50th anniversary of the Balmer North mine explosion that killed 15 men and wounded 10 others on April 3, 1967.
A bronze statue commemorating the lives lost in the deadly explosion and in other coal mining disasters of the upper Elk Valley was unveiled, local children laid flowers at its feet, and speakers addressed the crowd in commemoration of the dead.
Sparwood Mayor Cal McDougall welcomed the assembled guests and said the Elk Valley’s mining industry provides good paying jobs that support schools, hospitals and other businesses but economic prosperity has come at a heavy cost in lives.
“We hope this statue and memorial wall ensures we never lose sight of the sacrifices made,” he said.
Gary Taje, western regional representative for the United Mine Workers union, spoke about his experiences working in the Balmer North mine from 1974 until it closed in 1986 where he was a miner and captain of an underground mine rescue team.
“Unlike those ill-fated miners I walked into a safe place,” said Taje of his first shift at Balmer North. “A mine ventilated well with huge volumes of air that diluted the large amounts of methane that mine produced. A mine where the only dust you kicked up when you walked was rock dust used to mitigate the danger of the coal dust.”
In the wake of the tragedy, a strong culture of safety had evolved at Balmer North as managers and miners strived to create a safe working environment, he said.
“We cannot justify the deaths of those 15 good men, [but] they did not die in vain,” he said.
Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski noted that the 15 killed in the 1967 explosion were not the last lives lost at Balmer North. Three more were killed in a mine flood in 1969.
“Historically in Canada, mining, and coal mining in particular has been a difficult and deadly business,” he said.
Stetski noted that new legislation, such as Bill C-45, also known as the “Westray Bill”, which was created as a result of the 1992 Westray coal mining disaster in Nova Scotia has drastically improved safety for coal miners but that many Canadians are still killed at work every year.
“Fifteen deaths at Balmer North 50 years ago were 15 too many and yet across Canada almost 1,000 workers still die every year while at work,” he said.
Robin Sheremeta, Senior Vice-President for Teck Coal, said it was difficult not to be staggered by the weight of the Elk Valley’s history of loss.
“I’ve worked in this valley for almost three decades now,” he said. “And I recognize many of the names that are on this memorial because many of their families still work in these mines.”
Local historian and third generation coal miner John Kinnear and other researchers on the Balmer North Committee have created a list of every person ever killed in the mines that operated between Sparwood, Corbin and Elkford since the turn of the last century.
They used old B.C. Ministry of Mines annual reports, death records, newspaper accounts and coal company archives to complete the task and concluded that 181 people had been killed since 1901.
Kinnear said the memorial wall with the names of all 181 victims would be unveiled on the National Day of Mourning on April 28.
A sample of the wall was on display at the ceremony. The first name featured on the wall is Henry Price who was killed on May 15, 1901. In that year in B.C. there were 99 fatalities in coal mines, 63 occurred in a single disaster on Vancouver Island.
“I welcome you all to this important place,” he said. “It is this committee’s hope that these two monuments in Titan Park will always be considered sacred ground.”