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Coalhurst Mine Disaster—December 9, 1935

The 16 miners killed at Coalhurst on December 9, 1935, were given what amounted to a state funeral in Lethbridge.  Pictured is the truck carrying the bodies of the Italian miners:  Albina Simeoni, Angelo Ermacora, Evaristo Rota and Leo Gossul.  Angelo Ermacora had come from Arzene in northern Italy before 1910, leaving behind his wife Mariana Pavan and their four young children.  He had tried homesteading in Lac La Biche but found it too hard and had moved to southern Alberta where he could make more money working in the mines.  Annie Ermacora, Angelo’s daughter, notes that the mining company took the bereaved families to the Hudson Bay store in Lethbridge and had them fitted out with "black funeral clothing."  The widow’s pension of $35 per month could not keep Mrs. Ermacora and her two daughters on the family farm that Angelo had struggled to build and shortly after the disaster, the farm had to be sold and the widow and two daughters moved to Kimberley, BC.  Explosions in the workings of prairie coal mines were unusual, unlike the situation in the volatile, mountain mines, where deadly combinations of methane gas and highly explosive coal dust created an ongoing threat. Although methane had seldom been detected at the Coalhurst Mine, an unexpected explosion killed 16 miners there on December 9th, 1935.

Snow blanketed the ground when shortly after 4:30 pm, three miners staggered out of the mine badly scorched. A methane explosion had taken place deep within the mine between 4 and 4:30 pm when shifts were changing. More than 200 community members gathered at the pit to see whether loved ones had survived.

Three funeral services were held at 9, 10 and 3 pm for Greek, Roman Catholic and Protestant deceased.  A funeral Mass was said at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Lethbridge, for the Catholic miners— Albina Simeoni, Angelo Ermacora, Evaristo Rota and Leo Gossul and they were later buried in the Catholic cemetery. The funeral procession was the largest the City had ever seen and the cortege, made up of hearses, pall-bearers, chief mourners and the general public, proceeded to the cemetery for the burials.  Miners from the region and the Crowsnest Pass marched with members of the RCMP and the Canadian Legion.  The Lethbridge Disabled Ex-Servicemen’s Band  and the Salvation Army Band, with drums covered in black cloth, also marched playing the funeral March by Mendelssohn.  The Last Post was played by the bugler as the sun set and the throngs returned home.  There would be no more mining at Coalhurst.Rescue teams made eight trips into the mine and eventually recovered 16 bodies many of whose faces were burned beyond recognition. The following were killed: Mike Kadilak, married, two children; Steve Zmurchuk, widower, one child: James Workman, widower, two children; Eben Williams, married, two children; Angelo Ermacora, married, 10 children; Lee Gossul, single; Anthony Gresl, married, one child; Louis Gresl, married, two children; Friz Gresl, married, one child; bill Lukas, married, one child; Albino Simeone, single; John Cook, married, five children; Andy Prokop, married, two children; E. Rota, married, two children; Harry Duggan, married, two children; and John Sarog, widower, one child. The three injured miners were John Saccardo, Frank Prusik and Andrew Kucji, who is quoted as follows:

God, but we are lucky to be here. It was quitting time. We start to walk out...Suddenly, fire, like might wind, come quick explosion! I think this is the finish. Coal dust swirl through air, gas gag us, we get no air, fire burn our clothes...Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, we crawl along...Pretty soon we stagger out. We were pretty lucky. Those other men. They never came out alive.

The Mine Warehouse, built in 1911-1912., was the sole surviving mine building and stands as a memorial not only to the dead but also to the mining way of life in Coalhurst. At around 4:30 pm on December 9th, 1935, three miners with burned clothing and scorched skin staggered out of the mine.  Rescue teams made eight trips into the mine to recover the 16 bodies burned beyond recognition.  Identification was done through the brass identification check carried in the miners’ pockets.  The pit ponies were also casualties.  A provincial inquiry was inconclusive though miners testified that the air in the mine had not been good.  Samples taken from the mine 18 days after the explosion still showed dangerously high quantified of methane gas.At the Royal Commission established to investigate the accident, evidence suggested that a mine worker might have dropped his electric safety lamp, shattering the bulb and creating a spark—an outcome that defied the standards used in the construction of the safety lamps. No precise cause for the explosion was ever determined. Work continued in the mine, but it closed less than six months later when the Galt No. 8 Mine came into production.

The multiple funeral took place on Friday, December 13th. Mayor D. H. Elton of Lethbridge made arrangements for a special train to bring 300-400 people to the city. The funeral had the proportions of a state funeral with three different church services, based on the religious denomination of miners. At 9 am Catholic Mass was celebrated at the Greek catholic Church in North Lethbridge. At 10 am Mass was said the St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church and, finally, a Protestant service at 3 pm. A giant funeral cortege of cars took the deceased and mourners to the Catholic cemetery and City cemetery for Protestant miners. Thousands of Lethbridge residents as well as most of the population of Coalhurst walked in the procession. Miners from other centres including the Crowsnest Pass came as well as members of the Canadian Legion. There were various bands with covered drums. An estimated 5,000 mourners assembled at the cemetery and heard the bugler play the "Last Post." With the shutting down of the mine, Coalhurst's economy shrank and today it is suburb of Lethbridge.

This article is based on the account titled "No Christmas this Year" by Janine Coombes, in Our Treasured Heritage: A History of Coalhurst and District (Lethbridge, Alberta: Coalhurst History Society, 1984), pp. 154-161.

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