THE PAYMASTER DISASTER

 “Throughout yesterday afternoon when word of the accident spread throughout the district, long lines of cars, bearing relatives streamed to the mine property. Police on duty at the shafthead, kept crowds back while the last victims were brought to surface...(one) relative, a woman, screamed when the body of one of the last men brought to surface was taken from the skip and the canvas covering the body was turned back to permit identification.”

--Timmins Daily Press, Feb. 3, 1945

 

You didn’t miss cage call. Miss the cage and you might as well stay home. Miss the cage a couple of times and you’d better find another line of work. In the Paymaster Number Five shaft, the graveyard shift stopped hauling muck at around 5:30 a.m. Cage call for the morning shift started at 7:30 and ran until just after eight. When the cage bell sounded, every miner was expected to have their gear on, their lamps ready and their day’s instructions from the shift bosses’ wicket.

            The cage was a double decker operation. If you squeezed hard you could pack in eight big men on the upper deck and eight on the lower. The 140 or so men on the underground force at the Paymaster were ferried down in groups to the various working drifts that were spread out like the storeys of an underground building. The vast majority of the Paymaster’s underground crew worked the ground between the 1050 and 2075 foot level.

            Every miner knew when to meet the cage at the start of the shift and when to be waiting at the end of shift. Eddie Taillifer and Larry Bilodeau were regulars on the third cage. It usually left the collar (surface) just before eight. On Friday, February 2, 1945, Larry and Ed unexpectedly decided to jump in with the boys on Cage number two. There was a lot of good-natured shoving and calls of “Hey, get on the next one.”

            And just to rub it in, Larry called out to Paul Stringer another regular on the third cage, “C’mon Paul, lot’s of room here.” Paul jumped aboard and the miners groaned and made room for one more. The Number Five shaft cage carried two cage operators -- Nicky Suppa and Stanley Kolozjiepki. Seeing that the men were safely aboard, they closed the rusted cage door and rang the buzzer to give the give the all clear. The cage then plunged once again into the wet darkness.

            Meanwhile on the main deck, Mike Parnetta and Melvin Markoskic were anxiously looking around to see if their buddy Stan Pylyk had shown up yet. The three were Ukrainian boys from Saskatchewan. They’d been hired at the Paymaster just three weeks before along with Mike Parnetta’s cousin Joe. He’d been caught sleeping on the job yesterday and was handed a two day suspension. And if Stan didn’t get here soon, he’d be facing a suspension as well. 

            Coming up beside them was somebody who should have missed this shift. Marvin Appleyard was coughing hard from a bad chest cold. He had planned to take the day off to recuperate but changed his mind at the last minute. It meant he had to scramble to get to work on time. But his pale complexion and wheezing lungs betrayed his mistake in judgment.

            As the clock ticked towards eight, the cage reappeared at surface. The cage door swung up and the protective gate on surface was pushed out. Nicky Suppa stepped onto the deck and shouted for the boys to start hauling their asses. Mike Mohoruk jumped onboard along with the Ubald Legault, Alphone Auguer and Albert Plourde.

            Russell “Mickey” Dillon was next. All in all, things had turned out pretty good for Mickey. He’d been an air gunner in the night war over Germany. Not many gunners made it through the mandatory fifty missions. But Mickey’s burst ear drum had earned him a ticket home. Now he was back -- a war hero, an Allen Cup hockey star and holding down a safe job on the sample gang. After risking his butt among the flak over the Ruhr Valley, why sweat it out in a production stope at the Paymaster?

            Nineteen-year-old Eino Niemi was the second sampler on the morning shift. It was his first week underground and going down in the cage was still an adventure. It must have been a different sort of adventure for his mother. She lost her husband John in the Paymaster Mine twelve days before young Eino was born. Eino’s dad had been riding the cage in this very shaft when the cable broke and he fell to his death. But what were the chances of lightening striking in the same spot twice? Young Niemi jostled for space in the dark rusted cage along with two other Finlanders, T. Voutillainen and Eero Kohtala who was just back at work after a six months leave of absence.

            Hector Poitras was already on the cage when someone pointed out to him that he wasn’t wearing his light. The boys all laughed as Hector rushed back to the lamp room. He’d have to catch a later cage. A. Beland, a father of eleven children took his place along with Ligouri Lauzon, who was starting his first shift without his partner and brother-in-law Hector Beauchamp. Hector had decided the day before to switch shifts with another crew. 

            The father and son team of George and Larry Dubeau stepped on board. “Hey, there’s no more room,” somebody shouted from the back and father George stepped back onto the deck. “You take this cage,” he said to his nineteen year old son. I’ll grab the next one.”

            And with that the door shut and the cage began its third descent of the morning. Nicky Suppa was an old hand on the number five cage. He kept the surface hoistman informed of the progress of the cage by a series of rings of the cage bell. They had just passed the 900 foot level, however, when the hoist cable snapped and the cage began free-falling into the darkness. Immediately the emergency “dogs” (breaks) sprung up from the sides of the cage and tried to lock into the timber lining of the shaft. For a few seconds, the descent slowed, but the dogs quickly gummed up with shredded, wet wood. As the cage picked up speed, the dogs, clawed and shredded their way down the timber lining, as useless as fingernails on an ice wall.

            On surface George Dubeau heard the snap as the normally taut hoist cable suddenly start slapping impotently against the shaft wall. He ran to the metal gate shouting for his son. Other miners tried to calm him down but George was inconsolable.

            “I should never have let him go,” he cried. “I should have taken that cage.”

            Eddie Taillifer, Larry Bilodeau and Paul Stringer were standing at the cage station on the 1575 level when they saw the cage go hurtling past. There were sparks flying from the sides and the eerie lights of the trapped men flashed out as the cage whizzed by. Normally, the lamps would have been hidden by the cage gate but the force of the descent had thrown them all to the upper part of the cage.

            Eddie ran to the side shaft compartment and began the precarious descent down the emergency ladders. At 2666 feet below surface the cage hit the 90 pound iron rails which made up the sides of the ore spillage pocket. The impact ballooned the bottom of the cage outwards and contracted its height to a mere two feet. There it lay, with the sixteen men trapped inside, suspended above the icy cold waters of the sump 19 feet below.

            It took Eddie fifteen minutes to climb down the slippery ladders. As he neared the sump, the only thing he could make was a single miner’s lamp which had been thrown at impact onto one of the lower landings. From somewhere in the cage, he could hear the sound of moaning, like men speaking in slow motion.

            As Eddie got close, he could make out two voices. The rest were as silent as the surrounding rock.

            He called to them and his buddy Ubald Legault called back.

            “Taillifer,” he cried,” get us out as quickly as you can. We’re dying in here.”

            But without acetylene torches to cut through the metal the only thing Taillifer could do was try and comfort his trapped friend. “Please don’t tell my wife what happened,” Legault called out to him. She was at home with their two children, five-year-old Annette and four-year-old Jacqueline. Ubald knew full well as he lay in the wet darkness that he would never see his girls again.

            Meanwhile Bilodeau and Stringer had phoned to surface and then collected some men to get down to 2575 level by riding down the hoist on the internal shafts of number three and number five winzes. But without torches, there was little these men could do. They decided to head to surface and wait for the mine rescue squad to be assembled.

            Bilodeau and Taillifer had barely reached surface when George Dubeau rushed over to them. He grabbed Larry Bilodeau, “What about my son?” he cried, “Tell me my boy is okay.”

            Having to face George Dubeau was the last straw for Larry Bilodeau. He tried to speak but just shook his head. Laurent Dubeau was riding on the lower cage and Larry couldn’t find the words to describe what had become of the lower part of the 4,000 pound iron cage.

            In the days to come, both Bilodeau and Taillifer found themselves unable to sleep or eat. They broke out into constant sweats, haunted by the guilt, fear and horror of the survivor. Both men vowed to never step foot underground again.

            Paymaster mine manager Charlie Cook was also having a hard time dealing with the disaster. Other mine managers sent over their best men to help but Charlie oversee the rescue operations. It fell to him to deal with the families and the media.

            The rescue mission was a dismal process. Ubald Legault was the only one still alive by the time the cage was opened but he died soon after they got him to surface. Mine rescue spent eight hours pulling the bodies from the upper cage. They then hunkered down for the gruesome task of opening the lower cage.

            In the months to come, numerous inquiries, studies and tests would be done to determine how the accident happened and how to ensure it would never happen again. The cable was found to be corroded in a number of sections. The emergency dogs were set improperly. If they had been placed further apart they would have caught the wood and stopped the descent.

            None of these investigators blamed Charlie Cook or the Paymaster management for the corrosion on the cable. Death in the mines was part of the price of doing business. The 19 cage deaths were added to the other Paymaster fatalities in a twelve month period; two Findlanders gassed in an underground stope, Andrew Kelford crushed by the door of the ore bin; trackmen Jean Bernard and Peter Canduso, who ran a runaway ore train through the shaft station and down onto the cage being operated by John Lavrick. The three men plunged to a very messy death at the bottom of the shaft which had already claimed 19 men in the past year. 

            It was the price of doing business in the Porcupine but still, there were those who would always look at Charlie Cook as the man who “killed all those men in the Paymaster Mine.” Poor Charlie knew it too. Some years later, when his wife had died he took a gun and shot his beloved dog. Then he shot himself. 

 

Excerpt from the book Mirrors of Stone: Fragment from the Porcupine Frontier by Charlie Angus