Big Sleep: The Malarctic Mine Fire of 1947
Palmer, Bryan D., Lunn, Robin, Labour/Le Travail
Bryan D. Palmer and Robin Lunn, "The Big Sleep: The Malartic Mine Fire of 1947," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 225-40.
MINES HAVE BEEN THE LIFEBLOOD of specific Canadian locales. (1) They have also been chambers of death, workplaces in which safety and working-class welfare have been sacrificed in the interests of profit and production. The resulting cave-ins, explosions, slides, and fires have killed workers by the thousands over the course of the last two centuries. Between 1871 and 1939 more than 1,600 were killed in Nova Scotia's mines; in Alberta, over 1,000 miners died on the job in the years 1905-1945. Workers had an acute sense of what it meant, on a daily basis, to risk their lives in the bowels of the earth. In some sectors of the mining industry a language of tragedy evolved -- "blood on the coal" -- indicative of the perils of work "in the trade," while particular mine disasters remain embedded in the popular memory of many mining communities. (2) The recent 1992 deaths of 26 miners in Westray's Pictou County mine are not so much an aberration -- as crude as the accounts of greed, political manipulation, and corrupt avoidance of safety responsibilities are -- as they are representative of a sadly recurring process, an almost ritual-like blood sacrifice of labour by those who value dollars over lives. (3)
One such moment of sacrifice took place in 1947 in the No. 4 shaft of the East Malartic Gold Mine in northwestern Quebec. Located a mere 18 miles from Val d'Or, Malartic was a new mining town of approximately 4,000 in the late 1940s, production having commenced in 1935-1937. The town's mines produced at least $1.5 million annually, output peaking in 1941 at just under $3 million. Local 696 of the International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union reported a membership of 246 in the 1940s, but unionism's activities receive little treatment in the town's 50th Anniversary "booster" publication. (4) No doubt the construction of the mine shafts, some 2700 feet deep, the labours of extracting ore and building a base for trade unionism in the inhospitable climate of a company town, registered particular histories, now obscured.
What left its imprint on the historical record, albeit incompletely, was the fire that started in No. 4 shaft on Thursday 23 April 1947, a blaze that supposedly commenced in the lunch room of the tenth level, and quickly filled the shaft with dense smoke. Apparently caused by a discarded cigarette, tossed aside after a midnight meal -- this was the official "explanation" -- the blaze drove five of the sixteen miners to attempt an escape up the shaft. Four managed to make it to the surface alive, while one miner, 45-year-old Tralan Lucaci, succumbed to asphyxiation. The remaining eleven miners retreated down the shaft in an attempt to avoid the rising smoke.
Twelve hours later, with rescue squads and equipment rushed in from neighbouring mines as far away as Kirkland Lake (and later dispatched from Timmins and North Bay as well), the trapped men were still unaccounted for. (5) Local officials, provincial mining inspectors, clergymen, and doctors, as well as mine managers, gathered at the scene. Women, many with babies in their arms, sobbed outside the mine's gate, some attempting to climb the wire fence or force entry to the shaft. Rumours spread that rescuers, who manipulated vents on the shaft levels to clear smoke and fight the fires burning at the timbers, were closing in on the entombed miners on Friday. It was possible that, at one point late in the rescue efforts, the eleven men were just one hour from liberation. Their fate was sealed, however, when an air line burst early Saturday morning, flooding the mine with carbon monoxide that would, according to mine supervisors, have killed any survivors within a matter of minutes.
Donald M. MacLean, mine manager, issued a statement at 6 AM Saturday giving up any hope of freeing the trapped miners. …