This is the story of one of Fernie’s ghosts – the tragic tale of a young man lost in the 1902 Coal Creek Mine Explosion; the largest mine disaster in BC’s history in which 130 men and boys perished.
Stephen wasn’t more than a lick of a kid at 13 when he started working in the underground mine at Coal Creek after his Papa died. It was 1902 when he went off for his ﬁrst shift, carrying his metal lunchbox, doing his best to be the man of the house.
He had a big grin and said, “Don’t you worry Mama I’m going to bring home money and soon we’ll be back on our feet.” Mama told him ”now don’t be going and doing anything foolish – just follow what the old miner’s do – the one’s with experience you watch them. Mama had never wanted Stephen to go into the mine – she had premonitions.
It started with a single church bell starting to ring – it was quickly joined by another and soon all the bells in town started ringing. The bells were signals in those days, an alarm system – everyone in the town knew what the bells meant. The day was Thursday, May 22nd, 1902.
There’d been a big explosion at the Coal Creek Mine – word was many miners were trapped. The train whistle sounded long before it arrived carrying the injured and dead down to Fernie. The news was terrible – over a hundred men trapped for sure. Stephen’s mother and sister frantically looked for him among the injured as they brought them off the train and took them to the hospital. They could not find him. The crowd had grown larger and people were milling about, some were saying they knew this would happen one day, the way the mine was run. Men were cursing and women were crying. The dead were covered in white shrouds of sheets. They were taken on to the Church of England Hall where they were laid out to be identiﬁed.
Outside the Hall little clusters of women and children were whispering and there were sobs. Inside the hall it was a grotesque scene. The coal oil lamps cast dark shadows and women and children moved from corpse to corpse looking for someone or something they recognised. Some of the men, the ones who succumbed to gas, looked as though they were sleeping. But many were badly disﬁgured or burned beyond recognition and so the women looked for rings on ﬁngers. Men who could not be identiﬁed or were not claimed were buried in a pit.
And so Stephen’s mother looked through the temporary morgue for a boy with a little copper wire band on his ﬁnger. A band that he had made himself. None of the bodies was Stephen. In the morning a friend came to the house. His face and hands were black from helping with the rescue. He didn’t need to say anything; the look on his face told the family what they already knew.
And so it came that young Stephen Balayti was buried on the 24th of May 1902. The family joined the funeral corteges that made their way up to the cemetery. It took an entire week to bury all the bodies, and the town was never the same again.