It wasn’t his fault. Rob Thompson was just a bit player in the 1992 Westray mine disaster that took 26 lives. But today, nearly 22 years later, his own small role in that tragedy, not to forget the fact he never got to testify about what he knew in any public inquiry or court case, as well as the reality that what he remembers differs in small, but he believes crucial, ways from some of what others testified to, continues to haunt him
At the time, they were just one more set of numbers, one more set of test results. Rob Thompson, 26, was a junior lab technologist for SGS, a Swiss-based independent contractor hired to provide onsite, laboratory services for the operator of the new Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S. — Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc. He worked 12-hour shifts, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., four days on, four days off. Every hour on the hour, he would conduct yet another test to check the quality of yet another sample of coal. Sulphur content… ash yield… BTUs… The results mattered. If the numbers showed the coal was premium grade, it would command a higher price for the mine’s owners.
Thompson had found himself working at Westray in his hometown of Plymouth more by accident than design. He’d grown up on his grandfather’s small family farm. “I had a normal childhood,” he recalls. “I did all the things I should, and all the things I shouldn’t.” He attended the local school, which was across the street from his house. It is not lost on Thompson today that the school is where authorities staged their press conferences after May 9, 1992.
Thompson left home in 1983 to attend nearby St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish where he studied geology and chemistry. “At the time, I didn’t have a plan,” he admits, but he’d heard “rumblings” about the possibility a new mine would soon open in Pictou County. “It just seemed like a good career to get into.” After graduating in 1987, he bounced around a bit, got married, and had a child. Then, “a guy I went to school with was friends with someone in the coal company,” he says. The new Westray mine, announced to much fanfare on the eve of the 1988 provincial election, opened officially in the fall of 1991. Thompson began work at the SGS lab on April 15, 1992.
Two weeks later, on April 29, 1992, a provincial mine inspector named Albert McLean toured Westray’s underground labyrinth. After he saw the amount of coal dust, a fine, extremely combustible powder created from the coal as it’s mined, McLean cited the company for violations of the Nova Scotia Coal Mines Regulation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Although McLean’s report that day didn’t note the actual levels of coal dust underground (the miners themselves would later report seeing drifts up to half a metre thick on the floor in some sections), he issued a series of orders, including one instructing the company to immediately begin spreading stone dust to reduce the risk of an explosion and a second ordering management to develop and file with the department a sampling and testing program to ensure the level of coal dust in the mine never exceeded the 35 per cent allowed by law. He gave the company 15 days to comply.
Rob Thompson never saw McLean’s orders, which were posted in the miners’ changing room. But on May 6 at around noon, his boss, Robert O’Donnell, the head of the lab, asked him to run a different test. This one was to determine the percentage of coal dust in a series of samples Trevor Eagles, an engineer-in-training at Westray, had scooped up from four different sections of the mine. The samples, Thompson remembers, looked like “a fine, black talcum powder.” Thompson conducted these tests in between his other tests and then telephoned the results to Eagles. Thompson read off the numbers, 23 per cent ash, 33 per cent ash, 41 per cent ash and 39 per cent ash, hung up and went back to his business.
They were still just numbers to him.
An hour later, however, “four or five guys from the [main] office showed up to confront my boss. I can’t say for sure who showed up at the lab,” he admits today. “I was so busy with everything else that I didn’t have time to process the people doing the complaining.”
Standing off to one side, Thompson remembers asking the lab’s senior technician what was going on.
“They’re here about the results of that test you did,” the tech told him.
“How bad were they?”
“Real bad.” It turned out that any result below 65 per cent was considered explosive; meaning every sample Thompson had tested was a bomb waiting to be set off.
Eventually, O’Donnell called Thompson over to his desk. “Let’s go downstairs and we can walk everyone through how the test was done.” Thompson did as he’d been asked. “They accused me of doing the test wrong,” he remembers. “They left in a huff .” After that, Thompson went back to doing what he was doing. “I assumed the problem would be dealt with.”
A few hours later, at around 6:30 p.m., half an hour before the end of an extra shift he’d taken that week, two guys he’d grown up with, Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell (“I coached Larry in baseball”), stopped by the lab to shoot the breeze before they began their own shifts down in the mine. They talked about nothing in particular, Thompson recalls. He did not mention the results of the tests he’d run, or his encounter with management. It didn’t seem important. At 7 p.m., he headed home. He was looking forward to spending time with his wife and child.
Just over 58 hours later, at 5:18 a.m. on May 9, 1992, a spark, probably from a cutting tool ripping into hard rock, ignited a cloud of methane gas and coal dust somewhere deep in the bowels of the mine, triggering an earth-rending explosion that ripped through the mine’s underground tunnels, even shaking homes and shattering windows on the surface in New Glasgow, nearly six kilometres away. By the time the earth stopped convulsing, 26 miners were dead. Rob Thompson’s friends Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell were among those lost.
Eight years later, in 1997, Nova Scotia Justice Peter Richard, who headed up a public inquiry into the disaster, described what happened at Westray as “a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference [caused by] a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect… The Westray story concerns an event that, in all good common sense, ought not to have occurred.”
Cold comfort for those who died. Cold comfort, too, for many of those who survived. Including Rob Thompson.
The problem hadn’t been dealt with. Rob Thompson knew that the moment his brother-in-law called, shortly after 7 a.m. on May 9 to see if he’d been working at the mine that day. Should he have said something to Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell that night back in the lab, he asked himself later? Would it have made any difference? In his more logical moments, he doubted it, but logic offered no solace.
A week and half after the explosion, Thompson was called back to work. The owners of the Westray mine also had a licence for a strip mine in nearby Stellarton and, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the disaster, needed to ramp up production to fill its contracts. “It was surreal,” Thompson remembers today. “Morally, it didn’t seem right. There were 26 dead, 11 bodies still in the mine and it was almost as if it never happened.”
Almost. The first thing Thompson claims his boss, Robert O’Donnell, instructed him to do the night he returned to work was to throw out “the split,” the untested remainder of those coal dust samples. After Thompson said he thought it was wrong to throw them out, he says O’Donnell didn’t touch them. At the end of his shift, his wife picked him up. They drove to the nearest RCMP detachment. Thompson went inside. Two hours later, he came out to tell his wife to go home. He wasn’t done yet. “I was there for four hours giving my statement. I told them everything I knew.”
By the time he went back to work that night, “everything had been locked down. There was a Mountie monitoring everyone who went in or came out of the place. I knew I was done. They’d figure out soon enough who leaked.” Three weeks later, at the end of his shift, “they gave me my pink slip. My services were ‘no longer required.’”
He was done with Westray. But Westray was far from done with him.
“My name is Robert Thompson,” began the email that landed in my inbox on August 14, 2013. “A long time ago I worked at Westray…” After more than 21 years, Thompson had decided he wanted, needed, to set the record straight. Why?
“A little to clear my name, I guess,” he tells me when we finally sit down to talk. “No, that’s not quite it. I want to get the focus back on what happened. That mine should have been shut down on May 6. There was an opportunity to say, ‘Stop and let’s fix the problem.’ But it didn’t happen. It’s a heavy burden to carry for me when the excuse they used for doing nothing that day was that I didn’t do the test correctly.”
Why did those in authority attack his test results instead of the coal dust problem? And why did those who did testify mis-state crucial details about the date when he did those tests?
He acknowledges “it could be that what I had to say wasn’t that important.” There was more than enough evidence to show the Westray mine had become a ticking time bomb in the weeks and months before the explosion, and that there were dozens of other, better reasons for that.
Thompson’s last contact with officials from the provincial government came in late September 1992 when the Department of Labour’s lead investigator told him, off the record, that “even he didn’t trust the people he was working for. Not a good note for me to end things on.”
“It was tough after,” Thompson acknowledges today. After he lost his job, “they told me I was ‘surplus to needs’”, his wife had to find work to support their growing family, which now included two more children. Thompson stayed home to look after them. Later, he signed on as a lobster fisherman. “It was as far away from mining as I could get,” he says. “I felt a lot of guilt. I didn’t become a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or anything, but it did speed up the breakdown of my first marriage. I spent the rest of that decade running away from Westray.”
In 1993, Thompson took a job as a milkman, delivering to stores and homes in his area. That job ended with a car accident in which the driver of a car, which had pulled out in front of him, was killed and Thompson’s milk van totaled. “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m done. I can’t do it anymore.’”
What made everything worse was that Thompson never had the opportunity to talk publicly about what had happened that day in the lab.
Soon after the explosion, Thompson had been invited to fly to Toronto to take part in a CBC Fifth Estate program about the disaster but, after talking it over with his parents, he declined. “They said, ‘Don’t do it.’ My dad was like, ‘keep your mouth shut. Let it slide.’ They were worried about how it would look, that it could be made to look bad for me. It was all pretty raw at the time.”
Thompson wasn’t called to testify at Judge Richard’s public inquiry. Why not? “That’s something I always wanted to know,” he says today, “I attended a few days of it but, by then, I was in the midst of my divorce.”
He was on the witness list for the criminal trial of Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, two senior Westray managers who were charged in 1995 with 26 accounts of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death. But that trial got bogged down in legal wrangling and prosecutors eventually dropped all charges.
So, at the end of the day, Thompson has never spoken publicly about the coal dust test he conducted on May 6, or what happened in the lab later that day. “I had a small part in it, and I don’t feel that was ever given proper consideration.”
During the inquiry, Trevor Eagles, the junior engineer who gathered the samples and to whom Thompson reported the results, did testify. But Eagles told Judge Richard he got Thompson’s test results on May 7, a day later than Thompson says he reported them. “You can find it online,” Thompson tells me of Eagles testimony. “Day 76.” He’s read it often.
That discrepancy has eaten at Thompson over the years. It might simply have been a slip of memory, but Thompson frets that the difference could also be significant. If company officials had had the test results on May 6, as Thompson claims, it means they had 24 hours more in which they could have — should have — taken action to bring down the levels of coal dust, perhaps even averted what was already a looming disaster.
That’s probably wishful thinking. As Justice Richard put it in his report: “It was clear from the outset that the loss of 26 lives at Plymouth… was not the result of a single definable event or misstep… Management failed, the inspectorate failed, and the mine blew up.”
Perhaps more significantly, Richard makes the case that no one would have needed a lab report to know the level of coal dust inside the mine was dangerous. “Mine management was aware of this problem, but failed to respond to complaints by employees or to the orders of 29 April 1992 from the Department of Labour.”
The inspector, Albert McLean, was actually at the mine site again on May 6, the day Thompson says he tested the samples. “What if,” asked Judge Richard, McLean “had returned underground to evaluate the company’s progress in complying with the several oral and written orders issued during the inspectors’ visit of 29 April 1992?”
Richard, in fact, posed a half-dozen rhetorical what-if questions in his report “to underscore the proposition that the Westray story is, indeed, a “‘complex mosaic’ that defies simple cause and effect, blame and punish.”
At an intellectual level, Rob Thompson understands all that. But it still rankles. “If I had been allowed to testify,” he says, “then we would have discovered the true timeline. Either [Eagles] would be right or I would be. I’m right.”
Why has Thompson decided to come forward now, so many years after the events? “Everything else in my life is sorted out,” he explains. In 2000, he went back to school to study drafting. Today, he’s a senior rebar detailer at Steelmac, a reinforcing steel manufacturer in Antigonish. He’s remarried. “My personal life is great. I have a great wife. My kids are grown; they’re happy… This is the thing that’s still on my to-do list.”
I’d asked Thompson to ask the RCMP for a copy of the statement he gave them back in May 1992. His statement, along with his logbook could help confirm his version of events. But he hasn’t had any luck. It was a long time ago and the files are hard to track down. “I’ll try [the RCMP officer] again this week,” he tells me. Although he worries the police are trying to put him off, he admits: “It might just be me being paranoid. I’m sure it is only that he is very busy with current files.”
In the end, the details probably matter less than Rob Thompson’s need to bear witness to what he saw. “I didn’t sleep well last night because I was thinking about this whole affair,” he writes. “I was at dinner last night and sat at a table with Robbie Doyle’s parents. They are good decent people who didn’t deserve to bury their son because these people weren’t capable of doing their job to make that place safe.”
That, in the end, is what Rob Thompson wants, and needs, to say today.
Originally published in Natural Resources Magazine, March-April 2014.