Coal-mine disaster dusted off to good effect

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November 21, 2013

The Devil’s Breath

The story of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster of 1914

By Steve Hanon

NeWest Press

327 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Lorne Daniel

The early years of the 20th century seems distant, faded from today’s viewpoint, almost a full century later. European powers and their “new world” spinoffs still saw western Canada as a sparsely populated hinterland. Tucked into the remote Crowsnest Pass in the south-west corner of the new province of Alberta, however, were a number of coal mines producing the energy that would fuel the first burst of western development.

In June of 1914, the worst mining disaster in Canadian history took the lives of 189 men at Hillcrest Mine in the pass. The story of that disaster has been largely overlooked in our cultural record — and not only because it happened so long ago.

The disaster was covered by western media, but little of the news was picked up in the east. Western coal itself rarely travelled as far east as Manitoba, so the story simply did not reverberate very far afield.

Yet, for a region that had suffered the Frank Slide just 11 years earlier, the Hillcrest explosion was another devastating blow. Filmmaker-author Steve Hanon sifts through conflicting and confusing sources – newspapers, inquiry reports, company reports and memoirs – to patch together a picture of what happened at Hillcrest before, during, and after the explosion and fires.

The Devil’s Breath takes over 100 pages to lead us to the day of the disaster. The context, Hanon says, is everything. He takes readers inside the industrial age thinking of the time, the heated world of coal mining labour struggles, and the work ethic that drove small frontier communities.

The mine exploded between 9:15 and 9:30 am on June 19, 1914, killing many miners instantly. In the book’s most gripping chapter, “Without Air to Breathe,” we follow the frantic escape attempts and rescue efforts that filled the minutes and hours immediately after the explosion. Miners scramble to find escape routes and air to breathe. Rescuers head down shafts, retreat for air and equipment, return at considerable risk and often stumble into caverns filled with the bodies of their friends and co-workers.

What went wrong? Why do Canadians know so little about Hillcrest? The story moves from life and death heroics to the frustrating opacity of our economic, governmental and social systems. One is left believing that there were far too many vested interests in Hillcrest for real accountability to stick. To his credit, Hanon avoids the temptation to pick out a single, arbitrary villain. “The truth likely lay tangled somewhere in the Gordian Knot of human behavior that involved politics, the struggle for control, human failings, fear, shrugged shoulders, equivocation, evasions and fatalism,” he concludes.

The Devil’s Breath is presented in a handsome trade paperback edition with 20 pages of photographs, a useful glossary, an event timeline, a full listing of the disaster’s victims, bibliography and other notes. It is a thorough package.

The effect is more archival than imaginative, which is appropriate. Hanon did not set out to write a new story set in the context of Hillcrest, but to clear away the coal dust and give us a good look at the original story. That he does admirably.

Lorne Daniel lives in Victoria, B.C.. His blog Writing:Place is at http://lornedaniel.ca

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