Horror in Room 13

What happened that terrible day.

Halloween was a special joyous event in Nordegg during the tumultuous years of the Second World War. Even in 1941, the darkest year of the global conflict, there was a feeling of community spirit and celebration in the air. These were the best of times in Nordegg. There were parties at school for students. Adults were readying themselves for the joyous arrival of  throngs of happy and wide-eyed trick or treaters. Nordegg was a town very much like one family, where doors enthusiastically opened for all, especially children. When the last trick or treater came and went, most adults, except the men on shift at the coal mine, prepared for the big dance at the Empress Hotel, otherwise known as the Show Hall. There was every reason to be happy and optimistic in Nordegg.  Martin Nordegg’s pioneer dream deep in Alberta’s Big West County, inside the eastern range of the Rocky Mountains, was living up to his every promise. It was a period of booming fortunes and good times at the coal mine. The company, Brazeau Collieries, could barely keep up with the demand for coal. Orders were at record highs. There was work for everybody, and coal miners from all parts of the province rushed to Big West Country to be part of the growing prosperity. The town’s population swelled to almost 3,000 citizens. Thirty years had passed since the first miners arrived in the rich coal fields. In 1914, the fledging settlement opened it’s first post office, taking the name Nordegg. The German entrepreneur wanted his town to be an alpine garden paradise and even designed it after the Montreal-area community of Mount Royal, complete with wagon wheel street grid. Nordegg even imported flowers from Europe. The town was one of the most well-developed coal mining communities in western Canada, with top-of-the-line sports facilities, a modern hospital, churches, and a three-story, six-classroom school.

Anne McMullen was seven-years-old and in Grade 3. Like every other child in Nordegg that day, she was looking forward to the evening of trick or treating. But when Anne left home in the morning to go to school, her family was housebound. Her father, whom everyone called “Mac”, was a mining engineer in charge of the briquette plant. However, he was home because of a work-related accident the week before. Her brother Art was too young to go to school, and her housewife mother, Mattie, had to stay put to take care of Mac.Johnnie Janigo was lying in his hospital bed in excruciating pain. It was only 10 a.m. but the phlebitis in his leg flared up almost unbearably. He had been in the hospital for a month and a half and he couldn’t see the end of it. The 10-bed general ward was three-quarters full and most of the other patients were growing weary of his groans. He only wanted some sort of relief, but on this morning he was certain it would take forever. The nurses and staff seemed unusually busy for the past 10 or 15 minutes. It was normally a semi-relaxed atmosphere in the ward, as much as any hospital could be. But today was different. In fact, nurses were changing beds in a hurry, darting from   one room to another. They weren’t stopping for any patients. It was a bit odd. But Janigo didn‘t dwell on the strange activity. It just wasn’t that interesting. But as a few more minutes ticked by, still focusing on his pain, his name was called. He looked up. It was his father John. He was surprised. His father was supposed to be working in the mine. “Johnnie, there has been an explosion in the mine,” he said. The rest of the patients fell silent. For a few seconds, the pain in his leg went away. His father looked worried. John Renchuk, a close fishing buddy, was working down below that morning. Renchuk was one of the 29. “We will have to get you out of here and take you home. They’re bringing in the injured.” Janigo soon learned he was not leaving his ward. There would be no injured brought to the hospital. There was only the dead. And they had already being taken to the Show Hall. Halloween was cancelled everywhere.  There would be no trick or treating for any children. Many had lost their fathers, brothers, cousins, and uncles. That night time stood horrifically still in Nordegg.  Whereas an orchestra was scheduled to play at the Show Hall for the miners and their wives and dates, it was now a morgue. There was only eerie silence. The entire town, remote and isolated from the rest of Alberta, was in a state of collective shock and grief.  The mine closed for six weeks. Classes were cancelled. There were no grief counselors in in 1941 to help the children cope with the enormity of the town’s loss, the sudden devastation of losing fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbors. Many adults would not let their children go to the funerals in the days ahead, including the mass ceremonies at the town’s two churches. There were no local newspapers, radio and television news reports to bring any objective understanding of the tragedy. Children learned only through eavesdropping adults’ conversation, bits and pieces of information which they did their best to put together. The following day Ian MacQuarrie and his friends went to the Show Hall.  Tony Milobar, who helped prepare the seating for the hall‘s movie nights, heard the dead were resting there. The boys went to the front entrance but  were turned away by a somber miner at the door. They tried a fire exit off the front deck but it too was closed. The boys then went on their way. They may have been shut out of the Show Hall, but the grief and horror was still everywhere around them. The downtown streets were unusually quiet. Every once in a while a red-eyed adult would hurriedly pass them, not saying a word. It was pointless even to wonder where he or she was going. All they knew was that it had something to do with the mine. MacQuarrie was not allowed to go to the funerals. One of them was held later that week at his church, St. Teresa’s. After the funeral ceremony ended, he watched pall bearers from the nearby roadside loading the coffins onto a  flatbed truck, draped with black sheets. As the truck pulled away to take the fallen miners’ to their final resting place in a mass grave, he walked along side, and then slightly behind. It was important for him to see everything, from all angles. MacQuarrie didn’t know why, but he had to know more. He followed the truck to the gravesite, where a huge crowd gathered, including his father Hector. MacQuarrie stood at the back of the crowd. His vision was obscured from the adults in front of him, but he heard many speeches by friends and union officials. All around him were the muffled  and painful sounds of heartbreak and tears. He bowed his head and quietly prayed. MacQuarrie, who was raised a devout Roman Catholic, never forgot his prayers for the fallen miners. Almost six years later, Hector was making plans to move his family out of Nordegg, away from the dangerous lifestyle that had claimed so many in the mine. He was already checking out a few prospects on the west coast.  It was a lazy Sunday afternoon on June 22, 1947 when Hector decided to walk over to the local sports field to watch Ian play baseball. He waved and cheered excitedly from the stands. Ian waved back. Once in a while he looked over again, to make sure his father was still watching. But Hector’s scheduled shift in the mine forced him to leave before the end of the game. Ian never saw his father alive again. During that shift, a cave-in seriously injured Hector. He died hours later in hospital. Hector’s funeral was at St. Teresa’s. Ian was an alter boy at the service. He prayed once more. And again, every day since.