1936: Moose River mine disaster

The Story











It is a story that grips the world. At 11 p.m. on April 12, 1936, three men are trapped 43 metres underground when Nova Scotia's Moose River gold mine collapses around them. The men are 42-year-old mine timekeeper Alfred Scadding and two of the mine's owners; 52-year-old Dr. David E. Robertson, chief of staff at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and Herman Russell Magill, a 30-year-old Toronto lawyer. In this compilation of radio clips, J. Frank Willis reports live from the scene about the desperate rescue efforts. The men are in the mine on an inspection tour when the ceiling collapses. Townspeople hear the noise and within minutes Moose River miners begin rescue work. Within days, several hundred miners from throughout Nova Scotia -- from Westville, Caribou Mines, Montague Mines, Springhill, Goldenville, Waverly and Stellarton -- and as far away as Ontario arrive to help. But no one knows whether there are any survivors.

After six agonizing days, Billy Bell, a diamond drill operator with the Nova Scotia government, breaks into an open space at the 43-metre level with his drill. He shouts down the pipe but there is no response. Officials decide to abandon rescue operations. Bell refuses to leave. Eleven hours later, a steam whistle arrives and a piercing note is sent down the pipe. Bell hears a faint tapping in response. The men are alive. The three trapped men were in the mine cart on their way to the surface when the mine collapsed. The cable holding the cart snapped but was pinned so quickly by falling rocks that the cart only dropped a few inches. A huge timber fell across the mine shaft above the trapped men and all the collapsed rock was resting on this one timber. It is now Sunday, April 19. The next morning, mine co-owner Herman Magill dies of pneumonia. Fatigue, weather and continuous rockfalls hamper the rescue. There's only one hope left -- reopening the adjacent Reynolds Shaft, which had earlier been condemned as too dangerous. Experienced miners from Westville and Stellarton are brought in to deal with this extremely unstable environment.

As the rescue operations drag on, newspaper reporters descend on Moose River. At this time, newspapers are the primary source for news from around the world. Radio is considered an entertainment medium. Which is one reason that officials of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, a precursor to the CBC, will not allow their only reporter east of Montreal to go to the scene. Twenty-eight-year-old J. Frank Willis is the CRBC's Regional Director for the Maritimes. When he finally receives permission to go to Moose River, it's already Monday, April 20. He makes his first broadcast at 6 p.m. that day. For two minutes every half-hour Willis is live on air throughout North America. He continues for 56 hours straight. An estimated 100 million people are listening. It is North America's very first live 24-hour news event, changing forever the perception of what radio can do.

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