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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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The Balmer Mine Disaster
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While fate dealt a cruel hand to most of the Balmer North's afternoon shift crew that day, there were some men who escaped relatively unscathed. Thirty-seven-year-old Fernie resident Pete Rotella was standing just outside the entry waiting for a crewmate to get some "powder" when the explosion burst from the mine. Rotella said later in his broken Italian accent that: "I heard two shots like a rifle. I lose my mind. It lift me up like a piece of paper." The blast literally tossed him over the embankment, along with pieces of heavy planking from the entryway's snow-shed. He landed about one hundred and fifty feet down the slope in some willow trees. On regaining consciousness, Rotella was quite disorientated but managed to walk 200 yards to the garage of Fred Sowchuk, a local trucking contractor. He was driven hack up to the entry in a pickup where his astonished shift foreman, who had assumed he had been killed along with the rest of his crew, met him. After helping to carry out a dead co-worker, an ankle injury that had gone unnoticed until then caught, up with him. He began limping and had to stop helping.

Rotella survived working underground and summed up the way it was by stating simply: "A mine is a mine. You go in, you never know if you are going to come out." One of the lasting legacies of surviving a mine blast comes in the form of blue scars. Earl Price and Art Parsons know about that legacy. They both carry remnants of the Balmer North explosion in their hands and faces. Coal left embedded under the skin leaves a permanent bluish mark, a miner's tattoo if you like.

The fatalities, of course, are more than just statistics. The five Fernie men lost ranged from twenty-seven to sixty-four years of age. Michael Oryan, a Polish immigrant who had resided in Fernie for twenty-three years, was just one year short of retirement. John Brenner, aged forty-six, was a World War Two veteran. Twenty-seven-year-old Walter Parker was a native of Coal Creek and an avid outdoorsman. Eric Lutzke was a thirty-eight-year-old East German who came to Canada in 1955. Hugh Hopley was a thirty-four-year-old Yorkshireman who had been in Canada since 1963. All married men, they left behind fourteen children and many other family members.

The people of Michel-Natal-Sparwood buried their dead on the Friday following the explosion. The two men overcome inside while working overtime were Guy Venzi, a fifty-eight-year-old Italian in Canada since 1912, and Delfie Quarin, aged thirty-seven. The others, killed in the entryway were Archie Wotjula, ago forty-four; William Cytko, age forty-one; Sam Tolley, age Fifty-three; Eugene Lucky, age twenty-seven; and Tony Capeliaska.s, another veteran miner just one year from retiring. They all left behind wives and between them another fourteen children. The remaining three casualties were from the Alberta town of Coleman: Ronald Freng, age thirty-one; Walter Gibalski, age fifty-three; and Willie DeLorme, age just nineteen. Of the fifteen killed, DeLorme was the only unmarried man.

There were other fatalities in other Michel mines that year. And the year before. And the year after. In 1969, a flood in Balmer No. 1 Mine claimed three lives and left three others trapped for a horrific eighty-four hours until their rescue. It has been over thirty years since that fateful day, but the memories are as fresh as ever for many. As the years went by, the coal mining communities in the Elk Valley and elsewhere came to hope that the Balmer North explosion would be the last serious coal mining disaster in Canada. Then Westray reared its ugly, tragic head. Now again we dare to hope that the days of serious loss of life underground are fast coming to a close. There are few underground coal mines left in Canada. and miners everywhere pray that a tragedy like Balmer North will never happen again.1The 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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