The day broke much like any other, cold and dark, with a light snow falling gently across the hard rocks of the Shield. The day ended with the passing of forty-two miners, buried deep beneath the cold, hard ground of North Ontario.
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Doyle Brown pulled his parka a little tighter to ward against the chill air, crunching the new snow, ice crystals beneath his feet. The morning was exceedingly quiet, broken only by the occasional hum of the giant hoists, hauling men, ore and waste muck to the surface. Ahead of him, thick clouds of fog billowed from the ground shrouding the headframe before swirling low around the mill.
Across the road, Mac Callaghan held his wife tightly, a last tender embrace before turning and bouncing down the stairs of the old porch taking them two at a time. Doyle watched as Mac ran to the fence and leapt across full stride, catching his foot in the process and tumbling to the ground, his lunch scattering across the snow covered sidewalk. Doyle stood waiting, as Mac collected his lunch, watching as Mac’s wife shook her head and smiled.
“Love you,” Mac called back to her.
“Oh, hurry on up. Doyle’s waiting on you again.” She put her hands on her hips, tried to look stern, but she was still smiling.
Doyle had worked in the mine his whole life, like his father and grandfather before him. Married, and divorced now, he had once dreamed of moving away, going to school, but that was before the mine took hold of him. Once you started working in the mine, you never left. Others had tried, but they always came back.
A few years ago, Doyle’s older brother Marly had left. He was gone so long without a word, Doyle was convinced that he had broken free. On a bright February morning Doyle’s mom opened the door to the RCMP. Marly had been killed in an accident, working in the mines 100 miles east. They needed men. Doyle started underground the very next week.
“Smoke?” Mac asked, offering a cigarette.
“What’s wrong Doyle?”
“Nothing. I’m just tired, tired of it all.”
The men waiting for the cage were mostly seasoned veterans. Deep lines etched their faces, caked with grime, with grease. No amount of washing could completely remove the influence of the mines. They sat, mostly silent, in their mud-spattered yellow slickers, cap lamps draped casually over their shoulders. They were all lit – you didn’t go underground without checking your cap lamp first.
The cage arrived, and Doyle, Mac and six others joined the cage tender on the old iron lift. They packed in, standing straight, facing forward; space and time were money. The tender rang, six short bells, pause, three more, and the cage began to lower, slow at first, and then much quicker. Flashes of light swept past as the cage lowered, 1100 level, 1500 level, deeper still. Finally the lift slowed, and three short rings signalled a stop to the hoist man at surface. Doyle and Mac stepped out of the cage on the 3500 level, 5000 feet below surface.
Doyle and Mac were assigned to the 3506 stope. They walked out of the 3500 station and into the main haulage drift. Here the darkness was all-encompassing, threatening. The cap lamp was critical, without it you were blind. Newcomers were prone to turning off the light, testing the darkness, before snapping it quickly back on with nervous laughter.
The men walked down the haulage drift, a rough-hewn tunnel, squeezing the empty space, but restrained by steel rods and mesh. Here and there, the rocks were gaining advantage, bursting the iron mesh, forming jagged piles on the drift floor, and against the walls. A constant stream of water, gouts of steam and fat drops issued forth from fissures in the rock, forming pools and oozing mud puddles beneath the heavy boots of the miners. Passing in and out of the mud, a narrow gauge haul track led into the darkness beyond. Above and below, the rapid-fire staccato sound of jack-legs, hammering the rock, could be felt more than heard.
The air was wet, fresh but not too cold, somewhere between breathing water and air. Always present was the faint reek of sulphur, the smell of broken ore. Doyle and Mac were oblivious to all this as they lifted the hatch to the 3506 raise, and made their way down a narrow wooden ladder towards the stope. The raise was tight in places, their slickers snagged and caught on jagged pieces of rock above and beside them, and from time to time they had to ascend slightly to free themselves.
Doyle was the first to smell it.
“Stench gas.” The unmistakable odour, a foul rotten-egg smell that signalled a mine emergency.
The miners reversed course, headed back up the raise and made their way slowly to the refuge station. Inside the station several other miners had gathered, the mood was jovial - fire drills were required practice – but this belied a underlying nervousness. After several minutes, the miners grew silent, and settled into boredom.
“Okay, Doyle, Mac, Frank, John, Tom, that’s all for the 3500. Anybody else that you know of?” Dean, the shift boss, was responsible for roll call. “That’s it then, we wait.”
Doyle settled on a hard wooden bench and stared at the pebbled surface of the refuge station. Across the small cavern, a pair of miners broke out a deck of playing cards, began playing blackjack. Mac started to pace, strolling back and forth along the 20 foot length of the station, slow at first and then with more intensity.
“Sit down Mac.” Frank, the oldest miner, had become irritated.
“Don’t need to,” Mac replied, pulling a cigarette out.
“Don’t go smoking that thing in here.”
Mac paused. “Damn,” he said putting the cigarette away.
Mac was interrupted by the radio phone. The men stared at the phone, and then across to Dean who picked up the phone.
“Dean here.” A pause. “Okay. Doyle, Mac, Frank, Tom and myself.” Another pause. “Okay, we’ll do it.”
“Okay boys, it’s the real thing. Got smoke on the 3800 level. Let’s seal her up.”
Doyle reached behind the bench and carried a 5 gallon pail to the iron door at the entrance of the station. Prying open the lid, he began to apply a cemented mud mixture liberally to the cracks along the sides of the door, completely sealing the movement of air, in or out of the station. Soon the opening was completely caked over with mud. Dean cracked open a valve on the air line, and sulphur rich air hissed out of the small opening.
Behind him Mac had begun to pace again. Silence settled as the miners waited, waited for the drill to end, waited for the mine to clear, waited for rescue. Doyle watched as Mac continued his stuttered pace.
Suddenly the lights flickered, and then went out completely. The station reverted to a deep engulfing black of the underground, punctuated by five cap lamps which had begun to move in agitated motion.
“Shit. Powers out.” Someone stated the obvious.
“Is that smoke?” This was Mac, there was a slight catch in his voice.
“No man, just dust. Relax Mac.”
Doyle watched as Mac turned and continued to pace. Mac paused at the far end of the station. When he turned, the distinctive glowing red of a cigarette could be seen.
“Jesus, now I smell smoke,” said Frank.
“It’s Mac,” offered Doyle.
“You can’t smoke in here Mac. Put that thing out.”
“Christ,” Mac stopped for a moment, “I’ll be back.”
Mac bolted for the station door and without pausing, yanked it open breaking the seal, and closed it behind him. The others watched, stunned, before Frank broke the silence.
“Just leave him,” said Dean, “let him finish his smoke. He’ll come back.”
“Do we seal the door again?”
“No, let’s wait on him.”
A quiet returned to the room, a silence that just barely contained the underlying tension that was building, becoming palpable. The men, trapped and helpless and began to think of their life above ground, had begun to ponder questions that none would dare voice. Time stretched on until finally Doyle spoke, his voice making the others jump.
“I still smell smoke. Mac should have been back by now.” Doyle moved to the door and, raising his voice, called to Mac. There was no answer.
“Sit down Doyle. I’ll go look for him,” said Dean, standing. “If I can’t find him, we’ll call surface.”
Doyle returned to his bench as Dean left the station. Doyle began to have troubling thinking clearly, images of his life, his ex-wife, his parents, growing up, began to form chaotically, before being displaced by the next. He thought of Mac, his partner, who had only been working the mines for a couple of months. And he thought of Mac’s wife Lisa who was now listening the emergency sirens, wailing incessantly, waiting, wondering.
“I still smell smoke. Dean’s been gone 10 minutes already,” said Frank.
“Let’s go see what’s going on,” said Doyle. “Frank, call surface.”
Frank picked up the radio phone. “Phone’s dead.”
“Forget it,” answered Doyle, “I’m going to look for them. Coming?”
“I don’t think you should go Doyle. We should wait for mine rescue.”
“I can’t,” replied Doyle.
Doyle opened the station doors and walked out into the drift beyond. The air still felt quite fresh, but Doyle could clearly smell smoke. He looked north and south. There was no sign of either Dean or Mac. He decided to head towards the shaft – maybe they had found their way out. For several hundred metres Doyle slopped through the mud until he reached the north cross-cut.
Huge ventilation fans roared above him drawing air from the west, from below, and rushing the air towards the shaft where it would be expelled to surface. The smoke was more palpable in the crosscut. Now visible, the smoke was moving quickly with the exhaust air, east along the cross-cut and swirling dangerously towards the shaft. Doyle switched off the ventilation fan and moved into the cross-cut, turning east.
Breathing became more difficult as the smoke thickened, and Doyle began to cough. Still edging forward, his movements were becoming more laboured as he fought to draw air. Visibility was decreasing, the smoke thickening, swallowing the light in a fog-like haze. Doyle continued to move forward. He considered returning to the refuge station, but quickly dismissed the thought. Images, memory fragments flashed in his mind, faded to black and then were sluggishly displaced by the next. Doyle thought again of returning to the station, but he couldn’t remember why.
He was coughing violently as he moved, one foot in front of the other, in and out of the mud - funny he didn’t remember the rain. Doyle tripped over the bodies before he saw them. Dean was sprawled face-down in the mud, silent and still, his lamp a dull glow beneath the thick ooze. Mac was still draped across Dean’s shoulders, his hard hat and lamp to the side of his body, still attached to the battery on his belt. The sight of the two inert bodies brought a moment of clarity, and Doyle knelt in the mud and rolled the men to their backs. Both Dean and Mac lay completely still, their mud-splattered bodies difficult to distinguish in the smoke and darkness. Doyle had difficulty concentrating, his ears were warm, and he couldn’t seem to feel his hands. It was so warm. It had been such a long day. Doyle wasn’t sure why his two friends were resting, but it seemed like a good idea. He closed his eyes. Maybe just for a while, a little sleep and then we’ll get out of here, I’ll be stronger then he thought. The darkness closed in, wrapped the men tightly in it’s grip, as the smoke tendrils drifted by.