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'The things I saw I’ll never forget': Survivor of Springhill bump remembers the 1958 mining disaster


SPRINGHILL, N.S. - Each time the handbell rang, difficult memories came flowing back to Hilton McNutt.

The 89-year-old Springhill man was eating his lunch at the 12,500-foot level when the Number 2 mine bumped on Oct. 23, 1958. As the community gathered to remember the 75 men who lost their lives, McNutt thought of every one of them.

“I knew them all. I saw them every day, they were my friends,” said McNutt, who spent countless hours in the mine in the days following the third and final major disaster in Springhill’s mines. “The things I saw I’ll never forget, and days like today bring all those memories back. I can still remember their faces.”

McNutt, who believes he survived because it was his turn to go for lunch, made it to the surface nearly three hours after the bump and was immediately sent back into its depths as a draegerman, digging through the debris and walls to get to the miners still trapped.

Also attending the ceremony – that included performances by a community choir, solos by Clare Canning and the singing of one of Maurice Ruddick’s songs by his daughters Leah, Valerie and Sylvia – was Harold Brine, who is the last surviving miner that was trapped for several days at the bottom of what was at the time one of the world’s deepest coal mines.

Wednesday was the first opportunity Brine, who now lives near Fredericton, N.B., had to say thanks to people like McNutt, who risked his life to bring him and the other trapped miners to safety.

“It all happened so fast when we were rescued, we never had the chance to say thanks,” said Brine, who also expressed his gratitude to Canning and others for the ceremony. “When you look at that list, they were all our friends and our fellow workers. Just think that night that I came out alive and all those people between me and Maurice Ruddick and the top of the wall never survived. I’ve often wondered how they died under all that rubble.”

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The ecumenical service held to mark the 60th anniversary saw several hundred people crowd into the former town’s United Church. Some were relatives of those who died as well as those that emerged and at 8:06 p.m. (the time of the bump six decades earlier) everyone paused in a moment of silence followed by the reading of the names of the miners who lost their lives.

Bill Kempt, whose father Gorley survived the disaster but was haunted by the memories of it until a heart attack took him at age 47, said the bump was a “watershed moment” for many in the community.

“I was just thinking about the list of 75 men and I know I probably delivered papers to a lot of them and chased a lot of their daughters,” said Kempt, who was 15 at the time of the disaster. “Five or six of them were guys who hunted with Dad.”

Kempt said it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of the bump that some of the guilt felt by some of the bump survivors and their children was alleviated and they were able to come to a feeling of peace at what happened that night in 1958.

“I was there when my friends found out their dads were dead and mine emerged alive,” said Kempt, who as a cadet was kept busy in the days following the disaster. “I think at the 50th, a lot of those feelings got worked out.”

He said it was special to see Brine once again as it was he and his father who crawled through the labyrinth of rubble to get to the pipe to yell for help – a call that was heard by rescuers that were able to tunnel to them.

Lt. Stephen Toynton of the Salvation Army reflected on the night.

“This is much more than a hymn sing. It’s a beautiful evening, songs beautifully chosen and heartfelt words, which is in sharp contrast to what happened 60 years ago almost to the minute. There must have been a collective ‘Oh no, not again’ by the people of this town, knowing full well what must have occurred.”

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