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When Coal Was King
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The Balmer Mine Disaster
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When it was over, 15 miners lay dead and 10 others were injured, some quite severely. Thirteen of the fatalities occurred no more that 500 feet into the return airway. The other two were deep in the mine working overtime on repairs. Had the blast occurred minutes earlier, the afternoon shift would have still been outside. Had it occurred just minutes later, more that just fifteen would have died. Further inside there was a great deal of damage, some cave-ins, and no doubt much more toxic gas than at the entryway.

One family's story from Balmer North is that of the Savilows. You won't Find Bill Savilow's name on the list of those killed or injured, but Bill's father Larion (Larry) was heading in the entry that fateful day and suffered serious head injuries from the blast. Almost all the fatalities or injuries in the rock tunnel that day were from head injuries. Up until six weeks before the Balmer tragedy, Bill Savilow had been an operator on one of the continuous miner crews. He had been transferred to "C" Seam Mine where he was injured by a rock fall, but had recently returned to work. When Balmer blew, the First thought in his mind was: "My God, Dad's afternoon shift." He raced up to the mine where he helped two of the injured, Bob Glegg and Herb Parsons, into an old panel truck. At the Michel Hospital, he recognized the moans of his seriously injured father. Not knowing if his father, with whom he had worked with underground many times, would survive or not, Bill could only wait.

Larion lvanoff Savilow was a veteran miner, a survivor. He came to the Elk River valley as an eighteen-year-old immigrant and worked in Corbin for almost seven years, before the big strike of 1935 shut the place down. Miners who worked there remember walking in fear through ankle-deep coal dust. He toughed it out at Corbin for two years after the strike before moving to Michel. He was sixty-one years of age and had worked for thirty years in Michel when Balmer North struck him down. According to Bill, Larion was never the same after recovering from his head trauma. He decided he could not live in Michel anymore, so close to the place that had claimed so many comrades, including his dear friend and hunting partner Guido Venzie. Guido was one of the two men killed while working overtime that day. Larion moved to Fernie and never went underground again. Bill Savilow never worked underground again either. He said: "I've had my fill of it all: the gas, the coal dust, the rock falls, the close calls, the complacent management, the whole damned unpredictability of a life in the mines."

Another man caught by the explosion was Gerald Clarke. Gerald was one of the ten men injured in the first few hundred feet of the mine's return airway. A Coleman resident, Clarke had worked underground most of his life. He was born in Bankhead (the old coal-mining town located in Banff National Park) in 1911, and eventually came to the Pass to work for the International Coal and Coke Company mine in Coleman. When the International Company was struggling and only able to offer work one or two days a week in 1955, Clarke went to work in the mines at Coal Creek near Fernie where he worked until their closure in 1957. He then went to work in Michel and had been there about ten years when Balmer blew. He sustained extremely serious head injuries that day, as did the nine other men, including a fractured skull. He was first rushed to the Michel-Natal District Hospital but within forty-eight hours, he was being examined by a neurosurgeon in the Calgary General Hospital. It took over 100 stitches to close the wounds in his head, and his daughter Gerri Gettman said he carried around Michel "shrapnel" from the blast until the day he died.

The last thing Gerry remembers of that day was hanging onto a timber and hollering at the continuous miner crew he worked with to "run for it." While hospitalized, he continued to ask and worry about a young miner named Fred Churia who regularly worked with him. Finally he was relieved to learn that Churia didn't make it to work that day thereby escaping certain injury and possibly even death. A twist of fate saved one of the finest hockey players ever to step onto a Pass ice-rink.

The news of the other two Coleman fatalities, Ronald Freng and his close friend Walter Gibalski, was kept from Clarke for some time. As did others injured that day, he underwent a personality change because of the severe head trauma he had suffered. After recovering, Gerald Clarke went underground for only one more shift, just to prove to himself and the Workmen's Compensation Board that he could. He wanted to go back underground, but was refused and spent the next eight years working above ground at the Michel assay lab until his retirement in 1976. Gerald Clarke passed away in 1977, and his family has always maintained that his injuries from 1967 contributed to his early death. The Forgotten Side of the Border British Columbia's Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass

This article titled "The Balmer Mine Disaster of 1967" by John Kinnear is reprinted from The Forgotten Side of the Border: British Columbia's Elk Valley and the Crowsnest Pass, edited by Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller (Kamloops, BC: Plateau Press, 1998). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium thanks the author and publisher for permission to reprint this material.

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