Frank Slide, Alberta
The Day the Mountain Fell

Part 3 - Rescue

George Bond, a traveller who had stopped in Frank to spend the night before moving on, was asleep in the Union Hotel when the hotel began to suddenly twist and shake. His first thought was an earthquake, and, as soon as the building settled, he realized people would need help. Practically dressing himself as he ran down the hall, he was out in the street within minutes where he saw dazed and stunned people already emerging from nearby houses.

To the east, across Gold Creek, he could see a fire burning and set out in that direction along with a group of other people. The bridge across Gold Creek lay in a tangled mass having been washed away by a wall of mud. The men scrambled down the bank, waded across the small stream, and climbed up the other side where their lanterns and the burning fires revealed the horror before them.

Map - Frank, Alberta, CanadaWhere there should have been a row of 7 houses, there was only rubble, rock and mud. The last house, the Clark house (see 'F' on the map) was completely gone, including Mrs. Clark and her 5 children. The Watkins and Ennis homes lay in a pile of smashed timber. The Ackroyd home was smashed and burning. The Leitch house had been sliced off at the eaves with the top half carried by rock and mud to settle near the banks of Gold Creek. The lower half lay in ruin. The Bansemer home, though surrounded and blocked by debris, stood relatively intact despite having been shoved entirely off its foundation.

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Just before 4:00 a.m., Fred Farrington and Alex Clark had taken a load of coal outside to the mine tipple where they sat down with Tashigan to eat their lunches. Inside the mine, the other miners worked, never realizing that they would never see their friends again.

Just after 4:00 a.m., Alex Grant and his driver felt a shock and then the mine began to tremble. Thinking it was a gas explosion, the two men sprinted off toward the entrance as the floor heaved beneath them and showers of rock and coal rained down upon them. Instead of finding the entrance, they found only a mass of rock, rubble and smashed timbers. Three or four other men soon joined them from the depths of the mine. William Warrington, panicked by their imprisonment, turned to run back into the mine but caught his foot in the rails and fell to the floor, thoroughly wrenching his leg. The pain brought him back to reality and he quickly regained his senses.

Meanwhile, Joe Chapman, who had been working further back, first felt the mine shudder, and then a sudden blast of hot air picked him up off his feet and slammed him against the wall. Temporarily stunned and breathless, the veteran miner quickly recomposed himself and took off down the tracks toward the entrance as fast as he could in the heaving tunnel.

Dan McKenzie had been working on an upper level deep inside the mine when a rush of air smashed him against the side of the tunnel, cutting open his head. Despite feeling the blood which had begun to soak his hair, McKenzie composed himself and raced toward the entrance.

Seventeen miners finally stood at the blocked entrance and considered their options. Several men thought that there couldn't be any more than 15 to 18 metres (50 to 60 feet) from the outside, but one man, who had worked the mine since opening day and knew it intimately, broke the news that they were at least 90 metres (300 feet) from safety.

Warrington, who was unable to walk, remained behind as the other men made their way to the lower level where they hoped to find the exit there still intact. Instead, they were confronted by the rising waters of the Old Man River as it backed up into a lake and began to flood the mine.

Except for the gurgling water, the mine was deathly quiet. Disheartened, the men began to walk back to the main entrance where Warrington was still waiting. Every man became suddenly aware that, in all likelihood, the air shafts had also been pinched off and the air supply would quickly become unbreathable. It was also possible that the tremors had opened up pockets of explosive gas which, being lighter than the air, would be settling into the upper chambers. Their future seemed written in stone.

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Cries of help from what remained of the Ennis home drew the rescuers in that direction. As more lanterns arrived from the town, the men found Sam Ennis, who had already pulled himself out of the rubble burying him, trying to rescue his wife, Lucy, from the beam which pinned her. The rescuers joined him, digging in the cold, wet mud and slime to get her out. For her own part, Lucy had ignored her own serious injuries and had managed to save the life of her baby daughter, Gladys, who had been sleeping in bed with her and her husband. Gladys had been choking and Lucy had found and removed the clod of dirt lodged in her throat.

Sam Ennis joined the rescuers in locating his other three children. Cries from the back of the house lead them to Sam's brother-in-law, James Warrington. As they began to dig him out, James warned them that he could feel something soft beneath him. Carefully, they dug with their hands to remove James only to find Mrs. John Watkins almost buried alive. She had been flung from her house next door and somehow found herself trapped under James. Suffering from shock and internal injuries, Mrs. Watkins was carefully removed from the debris. Small splinters of limestone stuck into her body like a pin cushion.

James Warrington had suffered a broken hip. Lucy Ennis had suffered a broken collarbone. Her eldest boy, Delbert, had severe bruises on his legs and her daughter, Hazel, had been jabbed in the back by a broken board. Except for minor scratches, both Arthur and Gladys were unharmed.

Meanwhile, the two teen-aged Watkins children, Ruby and Thomas, pulled themselves from the rubble. Somewhere in the darkness, they could hear a man's voice shouting and carefully began to make their way over and around the jagged rocks in the direction of the voice. The beacon voice stopped, but the teens could see the lights of Frank and began to move toward them. When they reached Gold Creek, they could see that it was already backing up and was much deeper than it should be. Holding tightly to his sister's hand, Thomas led the way through the chest-deep water to safety. They had no idea of the where-abouts of their mother or their baby sister, Fernie. Nor did they have an inkling that their father was trapped somewhere inside the mine.

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The miners were surprisingly calm despite their circumstances. They had to do something. Each man returned to his work area to gather whatever tools he could carry back to the entrance. Once there, they began the task of digging themselves out.

As the men dug, Dan McKenzie and two others made their way into the upper, older levels of the mine. As suspected, gas was already gathering there, and, as feared, the air shafts had been completely sealed. They returned to find that very little progress was being made at the entrance. As fast as they dug out rubble, more fell into its place. The men began to panic.

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Lester Johnson had felt the blast of wind and had felt the house raise into the air off its foundation. With a crash, it settled back to the ground and began to collapse in on him. He could hear his parents, Charles and Nancy Ackroyd, screaming, then fainted and heard nothing. When he came to, he found himself lying between two enormous boulders which had miraculously settled on either side of him, effectively protecting him. He could see daylight and fires burning nearby, but when he started to pull himself out of the shelter toward the light, he discovered that a board had been rammed into his right side and was catching on the rocks. Lester fainted again from the pain.

When he regained consciousness again, it was broad daylight. Lester could see and hear Sam Ennis and others digging in the ruins where the Leitch home had once stood. Gritting his teeth, he managed to break off the lath and crawled slowly out into the open air. He didn't even realize that he was naked, his pyjamas having either been torn off by the rocks or blown off by the wind. Carefully, Lester crawled through the rubble until he reached the creek and somehow managed to swim and wade across. Shivering from the cold, Lester made his way to the Williams home just beyond the creek. The Williams' were so excited to see him that no-one noticed that he was naked and wounded until Lester mentioned it. Mrs. Williams examined the wound and found it full of feathers. The lath had pierced the mattress before before becoming lodged in Lester's side, carrying the feathers along with it. Wrapping him in blankets, the Williams' put Lester in an old iron wheelbarrow for a bumpy, cold ride to Dr. Malcomson's home and hospital near the river.

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At dawn, a second search party had gathered to plan the rescue of the miners trapped inside Turtle Mountain. The mine bridge was destroyed and the Old Man River was already becoming a lake. Travelling across the limestone dam was out of the question. The boulders were still shifting and the mountain side was still crumbling, showering rocks to the valley below. While the mining engineer tried to locate the entrance to the mine using the plans, other men ran about gathering up timber in order to build a makeshift raft.

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Some say that Joe Chapman, the foreman, took charge. Some say it was Dan McKenzie. Others claim that Charlie Farrell took the lead. Whoever it was realized that that the air was quickly becoming fouled and they would be dead before they could dig through the entrance. He convinced the others that a vertical shaft of coal deeper in the mine might be their best chance of reaching the surface. The plan was feasible, and at least as certain of success as trying to open the entrance.

Somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00, the miners worked in relays of two or three men at a time. Work was slow but steady, and their progress urged them on. Most men grudgingly gave up their turn to dig when it was time for the next group to take over.

Around mid-afternoon, 3 men returned to the entrance to re-examine the prospects of escape. They realized then the impossibility of escape this way and returned to the others to continue digging upwards.

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George Bond, the traveller from Ottawa, moved toward the Leitch house after having rescued the Ennis family. While the top of the house had been sheered off and carried away by the sludge and slime, the rest of the cottage lay in crumpled ruin. The rescuers found an opening in the back of the house and crawled into the back room where they found the two girls, Jessie and Rosemary, curled up on a double bed with a ceiling joist lodged between them. Edgar Ash, pit boss at the mine, checked carefully for injuries and entrapment, and, finding none, quickly pulled the girls from their prison and passed them to others who waited to pass them to the eager rescuers outside.

In the next room, other searchers found the bodies of two of the four boys. In the third room, they found the bodies of Alex Leitch and his wife. The other two boys, who were buried even deeper in the rubble, were not found until the following day, Thursday, April 30.

Marion, the baby, was not found anywhere near the house. Mrs. Bansemer heard her cries and directed rescuers toward the sound. Baby Marion was found lying on a bale of hay. The same power which had twisted iron rails into pretzels had also picked up that bale of hay from the livery stable almost a kilometre (half mile) away and placed it at the very spot where it would also drop a tiny baby.

Jessie and Rosemary were later taken to the home of family-friend Herman Trelle, who would care for them until their uncle, Archibald, could come from Cranbrook to take them back to his home.

Edgar Ash finally located the third Watkins child, Fernie May, lying cold and dirty behind some rocks not far from where the house had once stood.

Fernie Watkins was the last person to be found alive in the sea of rubble and limestone.

Andy Grissack was later found on the other side of the slide near the river. He was entangled in his tent and still clutched an iron fry pan in his hand.

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With the raft built and the approximate location of the mine entrance located, a rope was strung from one bank of the river to the other. It took several trips across to transport all the men and their tools to the opposite side, then, while one group of men scoured the mountain above for new slides, the other group tackled the task of digging a new entrance tunnel. They worked in fifteen minute shifts, certain that their efforts would be in vain. No-one could possibly have survived the catastrophe.

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The oxygen supply in the mine was quickly dwindling. Some of the men became anxious and excited. Others became despondent and morose. In the beginning, they had sung songs to keep up their spirits and courage. Now it was late in the afternoon and most were quiet, hoping to conserve the last of their air supply. With most of the men slumped in exhaustion against the mine walls, or hanging their heads in fear or prayer, only Dan McKenzie and two others continued to dig in earnest.

Suddenly, without warning, Dan McKenzie's pick broke through the surface and the narrow shaft was flooded with sunlight. A blast of fresh air washed over him and down to the relieved miners below.

It was too dangerous to escape through the tunnel. Rocks were still cascading down the mountain side. But, with renewed energy and hope, the men began a new tunnel upward through 10 metres (36 feet) of coal and clay. Thirteen hours after the slide had sealed them in a tomb, they broke through once again on the lee side of some embedded boulders which shielded them from falling rocks above.

They were free.

Part 1 - Prelude to Disaster
Part 2 - The Mountain Walks
* Part 3 - Rescue *
Part 4 - Aftermath

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