No Christmas Tree This Year
by Janine Coombes
It was December 9, 1935. New fallen snow blanketed the small village of Coalhurst, home to 1200 people, mostly miners and their families.
Black smoke drifted from the rooftops, separating into tiny wisps and finally dispersing against the deep blue of the sunlit prairie sky. As people made preparations for Christmas, only sixteen days away, there was no hint of the tragedy to come.
Shortly after four-thirty in the afternoon, three miners staggered from the mine gasping for air, their clothing torn, their faces and ears badly scorched, their burned and singed hair bearing evidence of disaster. Deep in the mine, sometime between four and four-thirty, as the shifts were changing, an explosion had taken place.
Rescue efforts began immediately, workers struggled to reach the entombed miners. As the blackness of night descended upon them, they came across the first body.
The howling wind added its mournful requiem to the scene of expenctancy around the large shaft. Electric lights, there to aid the searchers, gleamed hopefully. More than two hundred men, women and children, relatives and friends of the entombed miners, crowded around the mouth of the pit.
Her ashen face staring straight ahead, her eyes full of hope, one of the miners' wives waited. She wore a brown kerchief around her head and a brown coat, its collar high to protect her from the bitter wind. When there was no longer any hope, some friends took her home.
Thirty-one-year-old Charley Gresl, who lost three brothers in the explosion, was one of the many volunteers for rescue work. He descended into the mine with the rest and was the first to come across the body of Anthony Gresl, one of his brothers. Nearby Charley found a glove and a wrench belonging to the other two brothers. He did not remain to search the rubble. Later, another group of searchers found the two bodies close to that of their brother.
The rescue teams made eight trips into the mine before they recovered all 16 bodies, which then laid on the floor of the powerhouse a short distance from the tipple.
The faces of the miners were burned beyond recognition, and some had suffered severe head wounds. The name of each miner had to be ascertained through the brass identification check carried in his pocket.
The identification checks indicated the number under which each miner worked, and these numbers were checked with the office lists. Thus each body was named: Mike Kadilak, married, two children; Steve Zmurchuk, widower, one child; James Workman, widower, two children; Eben Williams, married, two children; Angelo Ermacora, married, eight or nine children; Lee Gossul, single; Anthony Gresl, married, one child; Louis Gresl, married, two children; Fritz 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.
Another miner, Rohovie, was spared because his wife had given birth to a little girl at two o'clock that afternoon, and he had not gone into the mine.
"It was fate," he philosophically said afterward.
Three pit ponies were also killed in the blast. Teddy, a favorite of the miners, had been a pet. He was a bay gelding who had drawn loaded mine cars for over 10 years. Teddy had become accustomed to visiting the miners and begging for food while they ate their lunch. Star, also a bay gelding, was not quite as friendly as Teddy. The third horse to perish was Prince, a small pony used to draw carts in low places.
The three injured miners, John Saccardo, Frank Prusik and Andrew Kucji, were taken to the Coalhurst hospital, where they were treated for burns. Frank Prusik described his experience. "God, but we are lucky be here. It was quitting time. We start to walk out . . . Suddenly, fire, like mighty 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...."
Mine workers began immediately to request an investigation of the disaster.
A telegram was sent to Acting Premier Manning, it said: "At a special meeting of the Coalhurst Miners' Union held here, it was unanimously received that we request the government to order a public investigation into the Coalhurst mine explosion and disaster which resulted in the loss of 16 miners' lives, and further that we have the right to appoint our representatives for this investigation work."
On December 12, Acting Premier E. C. Manning ordered an investigation of the Coalhurst mine explosion.
The subsequent inquiry revealed some startling, but inconclusive evidence. Miners testimony revealed that there were no mine officials in the pit at the time of the explosion.
Fire Boss Harry White, at the time of the explosion, was on the surface making his regular report.
White told the Lunney inquiry he had taken a gas reading in the morning, but not in the afternoon.
Mike Mogus testified that he had quit work II or 12 days before the explosion. He had once seen a safety lamp hanging on a nail by the overcast and put it out because of the flame was dangerously high.
Others testified that the air in the mine had not been good. They claimed to have reported their feelings to mine officials, but there were no investigations.
Samples of air taken from the mine 18 days after the explosion showed large quantities of methane gas.
In the first sample only .34 percent of methane was found, not an explosive or ignitable mixture; in the second sample 7.13 per cent of methane was found, a very explosive mixture, in the third and fourth samples methane was 25.46 and 25.48 per cent, too rich a mixture to explode.
No further investigations ensued and no one was able to determine what the actual cause had been.
In the days that followed, preparations were made for the multiple funeral that took place on Friday, December 13, 1935.
Mayor D. H. Elton of Lethbridge aided the village by requesting that car owners offer to transport village residents to and from the funerals so that they would not be forced to stay at home.
He helped make plans for a special train that brought between three and four hundred people to the services in the city.
After winning the civic election, Mayor Elton made reference to the disaster in his speech.
"There is one thing of greater moment and more vital concern than 'Elections' and that is the awful disaster and loss of human life of our friends and neighbors at Coalhurst. May I repeat what I said at the meeting last night and later communicated to the Herald and that is that the city of Lethbridge mourns with those who are bereaved and stands ready to lend any assistance within its power. This disasater has cast a gloom over the entire southern part of the province. It will be a very sad Christmas indeed for those afflicted with grief. I am sure we all very keenly feel their loss and suffering and extend to them our deepest sympathy, condolence and consolation.
City merchants, at the Mayor's request, closed their businesses during the funeral hours in respect to the deceased.
In its 50 years, Lethbridge had never seen such a day of mourning. Flags hung at half-mast, women wept, children, sensing the tragedy of it all, sobbed, and strong men were voiceless in their grief.
Three services were held at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 3 P. M.
At 9 a.m., mass was celebrated for A. Prokop at the Greek Catholic Church in North Lethbridge. The procession then went to St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church where a 10 a.m. mass was being held for A. Gresl, L Gresl, E Gresl, M. Kadilak, J. Sarog, L.Gossul, E. Rota, A. Simeone and A. Ermacora. At the conclusion of the service at St. Patick's, the funeral cortege proceeded to the Catholic cemetery where internment took place.
In the afternoon the Protestant miners were laid to rest in the city cemetery.
The funeral procession, the largest ever in the city, assembled immediately after the service. Thousands of residents of Lethbridge, along with practically the whole of Coalhurst's stricken population, walked in the procession.
The pall-bearers included friends and family from points as far away as Corbin, B.C.; Fernie, B.C.; and other distant points.
Pall-bearers for the L. Gresl funeral were Frank Pilchak, Jack Marsh, John Komer, Fred Stanley, Ted Koiwan and L. Hardlicke.
Pall-bearers for E Gresl were Paul Katanchuk, Lawrence Pilchak, John Slemko, Mike Slemko, Mike Boychuk and William McMahon.
For A. Gresl were J. Hubka, Mike Pascal, Bill Hales, Harold Heaton, Gerry McLeod and Carl Peterson.
A. Gossul: Bill Mykytiuk, Sam Slemko, Nick Abramchuk, Nick Mykytiuk, R. Shan and J. Salohos.
J. Sarog: Joe Filek, John Kovacs, John Pastor, A. Veres, John Tasi and Frank Veres.
M. Kadilak: Geo Ivanisko, John Polakorecky, John Gavandula, Geo Katanchuk, George Ukrainetz and Paul Katanchuk.
A Prokop: George Ratvay, P. Kistulinec, George Vasil, M. Buchko, Pete Sevcov and Mike Ristway.
E. Williams: Constable E. B. Davies, W. Kirkham, Jack Owen, Jack Roberts, G. Evans and T. Griffiths.
J. Cook: Adam Robinson, J. Brown, Tom Kinnell, Andrew Barrie, D. Adamson, A. Beveridge and R. Lothian.
J. Workman: Gerry McLeod, J. L. McLeod, Joe Ashcroft, Fred Pallett, Joe King and Fred Hamilton.
K. Zmurchuyk: Paul Tymchuk, B. Nestoruk, Nick Slemko, John Gouryliuk, B. Slemko and John Slemko.
B. Lukas: Alex Veres, Alex Baragsosi, Paul Hango, Steve Kurucz, Steve Nyarode and John Nyrade.
H. Dugan: Mike Mogus, George Unchulenko, George Chipiski, William Bratko, Harry Droniuk and George Pohl.
A. Simeone: L. Celotti, P. Lazzarotto, G. Chiste, S. Bacedo, E. Basso and G. Lizzi.
E. Rota: C. Chiste, C. Bridorelli, A. Locatelli, G. Joevenazzo, C. Moser and M. Santoni.
A. Ermacora: Joe Pontarollo, M. Caron, Giov Pontarollo, A. Massaro, John Pontarollo and E Sorbora.
Headed by the hearses, pall-bearers and chief mourners, the cortege proceeded to the cemetery. Representives of Coalhurst miners, Lethbridge miners, Shaughnessy miners, and others from the Crows Nest Pass marched along with members of the R.C.M.P. and the Canadian Legion. The Lethbridge Disabled Ex-Servicemen's Band and the Salvation Army Band, their drums covered with the traditional black cloth, marched in the procession, playing the funeral march by Mendelssohn.
It was estimated that over 5,000 mourners assembled in the cemetery to pay their last respects to the dead.
An unusual calm rested upon the city and the cemetery where the crowd gathered for the service. The sky was clear and a warm sun added a soothing atmosphere to the day. A perfect peace descended upon the land as the caskets, covered with flowers, were tenderly lowered, two at a time, into the ground. As the "Last Post" was sounded by the bugler, the sun set behind the quiet hills, the throngs turned homeward, their duty to the dead done.
Forty-eight years have passed since the mine disaster, and Coalhurst has not become a ghost town as some thought it would.
Today, Coalhurst is a satellite community of Lethbridge, a residential suburb of over 1,000 people.
The mine no longer exists. It was closed down right after the explosion and was never opened again. People drifted away. Businesses vanished.
Today, all that remains of the old mine is a mountain of red shale, some crumbled rock foundations, and a desolate building that was once the mine's warehouse, mute testimonials to the tragedy that occurred.
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