Twenty-six men died at Granduc, Feb. 18, 1965, in the worst provincial mining disaster in 35 years.
“Mayday. Mayday. Mayday—!”
The distress signal pierced the grey stillness of a mid-February morning.
Suddenly the voice was cut off and static reigned the airwaves once more.
But the frantic plea had been heard and, as shivering, weary miners — existing on chocolate bars — clawed at a mountain with bare hands and shovels in search of buried comrades, one of the largest rescue operations in B.C. history was begun.
Straddling the edge of massive Leduc Glacier, 30 miles north of Stewart, 1964-1983, was the little mining camp of Granduc. To access the rich copper deposit, the company drove a tunnel all of 11 miles long beneath three glaciers and three mountains.
Until, half a century ago, millions of tons of tumbling snow entombed 40 men and smashed buildings and equipment.
Thirty-year-old Vancouver miner Jack Smylie arose earlier than usual that morning. He wanted an early breakfast, he’d telephone his wife after, and was midway between the cook shack and bunk house when the mountain charged down. The avalanche descended upon the camp in two forks, one rolling over the bunk house he’d left moments before, the other smashing the cook house — leaving Smylie untouched on an island in the centre.
Had he started for breakfast a minute earlier, or a minute later, he’d have been killed.
Unno Nyrhnnon, 40, was also in the open when caught by the slide. The tidal wave of snow and ice swept him along 200 feet before burying him seven feet under. “Somehow he was still able to breathe,” his wife would say later. “He dug with his hands until he was partly uncovered and was able to call for help. Other workers pulled him out.”
Also outside at the time was miner Clarence Moore of Dauphin, Man., who was heading for the tool shed when “everything just went black”. When he came to he was buried, only a small pocket of air formed by his arched body keeping him alive. “It was pretty cold in there, but I stayed calm. I knew they would be looking for me. It was awfully dark.”
Another survivor saw thick steel girders “bend like they were made of paper” when the avalanche smashed the machine shop in which he was working. One man was saved by a piece of drifting plywood.
George Kaduk said he was “shovelling snow by hand outside the tunnel. I had dug quite a hole and when I saw the slide coming, I dived into this hole. A big piece of plywood from a building fell over the hole. It trapped me there but saved my life.”
Men had tramped over him for six hours before finding him.
First word of the disaster to reach the outside world came from Pacific Western Airlines radio operator Innis Kelly. Broadcasting from the mine’s office, one of the two surviving structures, he grimly reported, “We can hold out for tonight.”
His initial distress call had been cut short when the power house had collapsed.
Almost all buildings had been “leveled — just like a field”.
Then Kelly had transmitted on batteries salvaged from bulldozers stranded in 12 feet of snow. Outside, in a torrential downpour which increased the dangers of further avalanches, flickered a giant signal fire. All about him, injured men lay on the shack floor as a doctor and first-aid attendant worked ceaselessly.
While Lt.-Col. W.H.V. Matthews formulated evacuation plans to Prince George, 200 miles to the south, the first survivors were being dug from the snows. Desperate for tools, miners used pieces of chain, one man on each end, to saw through the packed snow. Twenty more men, some in critical condition, were dragged to safety. Twenty more were missing.
The Alaskan ferry Taku sped from Kodiak to Prince Rupert to load medical supplies and rescue personnel when she’d proceed to Chickamin River to serve as a floating hospital for the injured men airlifted from Granduc by helicopter. From there, the seriously hurt would be flown to Ketchikan or Prince Rupert.
At beleaguered Granduc, where 20 feet of snow had fallen in three days, the immediate problem was that of food, clothing and shelter. For the time being, there could be no outside help. Until rescuers broke through, they were on their own.
Meanwhile, army engineers were rushing to Stewart from Vancouver Island and southern mainland ports. By the following day, the number of missing had been raised to 25; two bodies had been recovered.
By this time, with the U.S. Coast Guard in charge of sea operations, an initial squad of the international armada of rescue workers had reached the scene and the battle against time, a raging blizzard and 18 feet of snow was on. At Chickamin River 60 more rescuers were stranded by the weather. But 113 survivors had been ferried by air and sea to hospital in Ketchikan, the ferry Taku working around the clock and covering 500 miles in two days as hospital ship. However, her evacuees numbered only seven, among whom was a 21-year-old miner who fell to the deck in shock and, as three men struggled to hold him, he feverishly relived his nightmare beneath the snow, punching wildly to get free, to breathe, to see light…
Throughout the province, families and friends anxiously awaited news of loved ones as another blizzard ravaged the camp and 25 benumbed and exhausted searchers continued to hunt for more survivors beneath the rumbling waves of white. Five more bodies were recovered but the weather prevented further men, equipment and supplies from being landed as, at Ketchikan and Stewart, Americans and Canadians waited impatiently for the storm to abate, so that they could take off for the disaster scene. Many were now giving up hope of finding alive the 20 men still unaccounted for. But, said an RCMP sergeant, “There is always a chance for a miracle.”
(To be continued)