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Map Western Canada -- Crowsnest Pass & Sparwood

This page is a tribute to the men who lost their lives in the April 3, 1967 explosion in the Balmer North coal mine. The Balmer North mine was located in the historic Canadian coal mining towns of Michel - Natal, British Columbia . These two towns were established around 1900. In the late 1960's the towns were relocated to the nearby community of Sparwood.

This is a picture of the men who died that fateful day

Men who were killed in Balmer
North Explosion

The names and ages of the victims:

Top Row: Eugene Lucky, 27; Mike Bryan, 64; Archie Wojtula, 44; Ronald Frenz , 31; Delfie Quarin, 37.
Middle Row: Sam Tolley, 53; Hugh Hopley, 36; Guy Venzi, 58; John Brenner, 46; Willie DeLorme , 19.
Bottom: Wladuslaw "Walter" Gibalski, 53; Walter Parker, 27; Eric Lutzke, 38; Antanas "Tony" Cepeliauskas, 65; Bill Cytko , 41.

Coal mining has always been a dangerous way to make a living. When men are working underground extracting coal, the earth needs to work or settle as the tunnels proceed. If this does not occur then there is continuous movement which can cause the roof to collapse. In addition, there is a constant bleeding off of the coal gas (methane) which can accumulate in the shaft. When the concentration of methane gas reaches a range of 5.8% to 13.3%, an explosion becomes a possiblity. If at this point, there is an ignition source, such as an electrical spark, an explosion will likely occur. In addition, one final contribution to a disaster, is the coal dust which always permeates the tunnels. When methane gas explodes, the fine coal dust gets disturbed and flies up into the air and also ignites, causing a huge explosion to occur along the whole length of the tunnel. This is the same type of thing that occurs in grain elevators where there is also a lot af dust. To this day, we still do not know for sure what exactly caused the Balmer North Mine to explode.

The explosion in the Balmer North Mine occurred at 4:00 P.M. just as the day shift had left and the afternoon shift was arriving for work. If it had happened an hour sooner or even a half an hour later the number of fatalities could have been much higher. There were approximately thirty miners had just entered the tunnel when the blast occurred. Thirteen of them were either killed outright or died later of their injuries. It has been said that the tunnel shape may have saved some as there was a sharp angle about 1000 feet in and the blast, as it rushed out of the tunnel began to ricochet down the shaft and therefore missed some and caught the others. Fortunately, the Mine Rescue team was starting to practice and were all suited up and ready to go when the accident occurred. They immediately raced to the mine site to begin the rescue effort.

There were 10 men seriously injured by the explosion. They were:- Larry Savilow, Earl Price, Bob Brown, Gerry Clark, Herb Parsons, Art Parsons, Pete Rotella, William Corrigan , Robert Clegg, and Irv Mitchell. Pete Rotella was actually blown out of the mine entrance over an embankment 150 feet away. Amazingly, he was probably the least seriously injured of the men. The injured were being transported to the hospital in any way possible as there was only one ambulance in the town. The resources of the small Michel hospital were taxed to the limits with all the injured miners arriving. All kinds of help began to arrive in the form of doctors, nurses, and ordinary people who wanted to help in whatever way they could. As well, Mine Rescue teams came from the south-eastern B.C. towns of Fernie and Kimberley. Local businesses donated food and other supplies to help everyone get through the night. My mother, Helen Venzi , was working at the hospital and remembers the horror of seeing all these injured men she knew covered with mud and unrecognizable except by their voices. From now on these men carried the coal dust stained blue scars on their faces which branded them as survivors of this terrible experience.

Once the survivors injured near the mine entrance were removed, the grisly task now confronting the Mine Rescue team was to search for the other two missing miners, Delfie Quarin and Guy Venzi, my uncle. They were the only ones who were actually deep in the mine when the blast occurred. My cousin, Ernie Borsato, and my neighbour, David Howe, were members of the Mine rescue team. I recall David Howe telling me the feeling of wanting to find Guy and Delfie but not wanting to find them as they knew they could not have survived. David also described how, when underground, he felt like gagging, but could not remove his mask, due to poisonous gases in the mine.

Rescuer Ernie Borsato

This is a picture of Ernie Borsato , a member of the Mine Rescue team. He is about to enter the mine to search for the two miners still unaccounted for -- my uncle Guy Venzi and Delfie Quarin. Guy and Delfie had stayed behind to repair some machinery when the rest of the day shift left. Guy was Ernie's uncle too. This picture captures the strain that Ernie and the rest of the Mine Rescue teams were under. The bodies of Guy and Delfie were not found until six o'clock the next morning.

The memory of that day is still quite vivid in my mind's eye even though I was away at university at the time. I heard a news flash on the radio and when it mentioned a "mining accident" it spurred my attention immediately. I knew that my Uncle Guy worked in that mine and due to the emergency there was no way for me to contact anyone over the phone. I did not learn of my Uncle Guy's death until the next morning when his name was announced on the radio. Guy Venzi was not my first relative to die in the mines. Another of my uncles, Mike Borsato, died in a gas related accident in 1951.

As a child growing up in Michel, I had watched the ambulance go to the hospital many times. Each time, I had heard my parents, Fred and Helen Venzi, speak of other miners who had died on the job. I also recall the fear I felt as my own father would go to work in the mine. It seemed especially foreboding when he left the house on his night shift.

Although all the miners worked hard in dangerous conditions, they had some fun too. After work, they would often talk of the pranks they played on each in the mine. They developed a camaraderie that is hard to describe, and most of them would not have wanted to work at anything else.

These fifteen men who died on April 3, 1967, along with all the others, who have lost their lives in the "dark recess" of all the coal mines of the Michel-Natal area deserve to be remembered in a special way by those of us that remain.

My HOMEPAGE Coal Miners Memorial is a tribute to the miners of the Natal-Michel and Sparwood area of British Columbia, Canada. It also has coal-mining Links.

My COMPANION PAGE Hillcrest Mine Disaster commemorates the 189 men killed in Canada's worst coal mining disaster which occurred in 1914.

Written by:
Ron Venzi
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Email: ronvenzi@hotmail.com