It’s December 9, 1910.
At 7:10 pm, Fred Heale heard a sound. Pop. Not a boom, or a crash, as you might expect. Not a gout of flame or a roar of crumbling rock. Just a small sound, like a distant rifle shot on a windy morning. Pop. Then a gust of burning wind, and the mouth of the tunnel, shaft 120, filled up with white smoke, and the air stopped moving. And Fred Heale knew that he might die.
Alderson knew about holes in the ground. Holes were his specialty- how to dig them, how to shore them up, how to get what you wanted out of them and survive what you didn’t.
He started digging early, and he never stopped. At twenty one he was sinking wells in South Africa. By twenty five he was back in England, tunneling for coal near Newcastle, then in Madhyar Pradesh, in the simmering heart of India, then back to England again. In 1908 he took a ship to Mexico to start his own mine, but had to come home when someone broke into his hotel room and stole the investment capital. In 1909 he followed his older brother Bob to Canada, where the southeast tip of British Columbia was booming with coalmines that needed men like him, men who knew digging, who didn’t mind the dark. He wrote examinations, earned certificates, learned about fire and air pressure and creeping gas.
Fred Alderson knew about holes in the ground, and he knew how to survive them.
Which is why, on the early morning of December 10th, 1910, he and Bob Strachan pick their way down a manway between two mine shafts, with thirty pounds of canvas and metal strapped to their faces. The tank and bag are called a Draeger, and the men who wear them are Draegermen. They have come on a special train to Bellevue Mine from Hosmer Mine Rescue Station. It has been seven hours since the explosion. He and Strachan have two hours of oxygen in the tanks on their backs, which means two hours to get into the mine, find who needs saving, and get them back out again before the air runs out.
By 4 am Fred Heale can no longer stand. He and a handful of others- Hutton, McGough, and the Finns-Maki, Matson, Teppo and Pynno, are huddled around a compressed air station, sucking at the fragile thread of oxygen that seeps in through the pipes.
There isn’t enough.
The carbon monoxide in the chokedamp is seeping into their blood, making them dizzy, drunk, slowing their movements and slurring their speech. No noise. Just the muffled, ragged sound of straining lungs, the gleam of eyes in the dim yellow glow of carbide lamps. Occasionally someone will knock on a pipe, in hopes that those above will know they’re still worth rescuing.
Down the manway there are two bright, swinging dots, and figures emerge from the black- faceless subterranean monsters, with great misshapen chests, coiling tusks sprouting from their eyeless faces. They are the most beautiful thing Heale has ever seen.
One of the creatures removes its head, and in the dim light Heale sees Fred Alderson, the capable, wry Englishman with the neat moustache. Alderson asks if they are all right, and with the other man’s help, heaves his helmet onto Heale’s head. Heale breathes easily for the first time in six hours and follows Strachan up to the light, to the land of the living.
The others wait. The Draegermen come back, and take Maki. When they come a third time, something is wrong. A mask is missing. Alderson gives Strachan his mask and stays with the others. Strachan vanishes into the black.
The men wait.
The day before, Fred Alderson wrapped toys in brown paper and sent them to England, to his wife and four children on the other side of a continent and an ocean. His wife, who, no doubt leery of being dragged across the world in pursuit of mines, has decided to stay home for now. She has plans to pack up the children and join him in spring, when he has himself established.
The men wait.
The air gets thinner. One by one, the damp takes them. Soon, Alderson is the only one standing, propped against the tunnel wall. Then it takes him, too. The gas comes on slowly, like a drug- first the legs go numb and heavy, then a buzzing in the ears, then a giddy feeling, like spinning around and around until you are dizzy. Red-purple blots blossom in front of the eyes, making patterns against the walls. There is no pain, only a terrible weariness. The lights in the tunnel blur. The dark comes down.
By the time the others arrive, Alderson and the others lie still together beside the pipe. Desperate, the rescuers drag them to the surface, but it is too late. Their bodies are taken to the washhouse, where they are laid alongside the others, as still as waxwork figurines.
It will be a solemn Christmas in Hosmer.
In total, 30 men have lost their lives, leaving behind 21 wives and 42 children.
Messages of condolence and admiration for Alderson, “The Hosmer Hero” will flood in from across the province, the country and the world. The Alderson Fund will be created at the Bank of Montreal in aid of Alderson’s widow and children.
There will be calls for an enquiry, and lengthy testimony in the coming months about ventilation, who knew there was gas and when, and if any of the miners had matches or pipes in their pockets. There will be calls for better safety measure in mines, for more and better breathing equipment, for telephone lines strung through the mine workings.
But for now, the men of the Bellevue mine are buried in the snow. Among them are one pit boss, 19 miners, four timber packers, four loaders, one bratticeman, one tracklayer, and one Draegerman.
At Fred Alderson’s head in the Hosmer graveyard, a pink marble stone is erected, with an inscription from John, 15:13:
“Greater Love hath no man than this- that a man lay down his life for his friends.”