Skip to content

Reporter’s notebook: Covering the 1980 Val d’Or mine tragedy

The Belmoral gold mine in Val d’Or experienced a collapse that sent more than a million gallons of water, sediment and slime rushing into the underground workings — and claimed the life of eight miners. reporter Len Gillis was a CFCL TV reporter in Timmins at the time and he recalls the day
(Adobe Stock)

I didn't know what the urgency was at the time but CFCL news director Jim Prince said to grab as much camera gear as I could carry and to bring half a dozen new video tapes. 

I was just coming in to work at the news office at CFCL TV in Timmins. Jim was busy on the phone trying to charter a plane. That raised my eyebrows real fast. 

Camera, video recorder, tripod and tapes. That's a lot of equipment to carry on a plane.

When Jim got off the phone, he said I had to get over to the Northern Quebec mining city of Val d'Or. It was May 21, 1980, the morning after the first ever Quebec separation referendum. 

My first thought was that something terrible had happened because of the referendum. It wasn't that.

One of Jim's many local stringers told him there had been a cave-in overnight at the Belmoral Ferderber gold mine in the part of Val d'Or known as Bourlamaque. It was believed that several miners were somehow trapped underground. Several others had literally escaped with their lives. Part of a road, part of a lake and part of a swamp had collapsed into the mine workings around 10 p.m. the night before, May 20, 1980.

Jim had called Austin Airways, based at the Timmins Airport, hoping to get a charter flight. No luck. There was, however, a scheduled flight, a 10-passenger Beech King Air was departing the airport just after lunch.

All the seats were sold. There was no co-pilot. Luckily our newsroom had a good relationship with Austin. I got the co-pilot seat. The flight was uneventful, but the pilot said he had heard about the mining accident. Some of the other passengers were mining company employees who had knowledge of mine rescue work. 

I was met at the Val d'Or airport by CFCL sales representative Doug Martin, well-known in Northwestern Quebec. Doug looked grim and said everyone in town knew about the cave-in and that eight miners were missing.

Right away Doug and I drove out to the mine gate. Just as we were arriving, a cube van drove up. It was a police vehicle — Sûreté du Québec — and the information on the side of the van showed a picture of a scuba diver.

That indicated the rumours were likely true. We had been told that the cave-in had sucked thousands and thousands of gallons of water into the mine and that some areas of the mine had been flooded.

Thank goodness for Doug Martin. He had been tipped off there was a home where three miners had gathered after the terrible ordeal. We arrived to find a small apartment house and were let into the basement apartment. 

It was a sombre moment. There were three men and a couple of women. The men looked rough, unshaven and had been drinking beer. Cigarette smoke hung heavily in the air. They were sitting at a kitchen table. 

As they looked at me with my camera, tripod and microphone, I sensed there was some level of distrust. The women had been crying. 

Doug was speaking to everyone quietly in French to explain that I just wanted to let them describe what happened, in their own words. As each of the miners talked, Doug translated, deliberately and slowly with his wonderful deep baritone voice. 

It was compelling as each man outlined how they had been working in one of the mine tunnels when they felt and heard the collapse, the mine was shaking. Then they felt the rush of air coming at them, followed by torrents of freezing water and mud.

It was an incredible narrative as Doug spoke quietly and deliberately, translating what each miner was able to recall.

The men had been chest deep in mud and water. They pulled themselves up by clinging to overhead pipes and cables and dragged themselves up the ramp to safety. One man had to climb over a scoop tram that had partially blocked the tunnel. The video tape with the translated interviews was rushed back to Timmins.

As far as I knew, I was the first reporter at the scene getting interviews with survivors.

Several hours later I was sitting in the bar and dining room of a local hotel in Val d'Or. I had spent nearly an hour on the phone at the bar with Jim updating the story as he put together the video interviews. This was in the days before cell phones. The internet had not been invented.

Jim said the story would be on the air quickly, during one of the hourly newsbreaks on CFCL. It was almost 9 p.m. By this time, the story was on the Canadian Press newswire. 

As he told me this, the bar was gradually filling up with more people. I could see many were out-of-town reporters from Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, who had arrived to cover the story. They, too, had tripods, cameras, microphones and notebooks. 

I asked the bartender if he could put the TV on the Timmins channel. This was before satellites and even cable TV in the north. Our station was the only English Ontario station broadcasting into Val d'Or.

At 9 p.m., the story came on and the bar guy turned up the volume. The bar went silent as customers watched the video of the mine gate, the mine property, the scuba diver truck and then the interviews with the three survivors.

Several of the out-of-town reporters came over to me and asked about the interviews. I gave them the names of the three survivors and told them what I could about the cave-in. We would all meet again the next morning when the Sûreté du Québec would hold a news conference.  

There were 24 men working underground on May 20 when the collapse happened around 10 p.m. Sixteen of them were able to get out. Eight miners were missing. 

In the coming days, there would be hope that somehow a sign of life would be heard, would be seen or somehow discovered.

Mine rescuers slogged through mud and slime trying to find a sign, anything that would indicate there was life.

Holes were drilled from surface into different areas of the underground workings. Microphones and then tiny video cameras were lowered down these holes. 

Nothing was heard except the sound of trickling water. Nothing was seen except for images of grey mud. 

Mine rescuers had arrived from throughout Northern Quebec and even from Northern Ontario. I remember talking to some mine rescuers from Timmins who drove to Val d'Or simply to offer whatever help might be needed.

In the days and weeks that followed, a sad reality set in when it was realized that the eight miners had not survived. There was little the rescuers could do until the tonnes of mud, slime and debris could be removed.

The authorities in Quebec took action with the establishment of a public commission of inquiry chaired by Judge René Beaudry. It was found that the mining company had been negligent and had not followed all normal safety procedures.

In follow-up studies, it was determined that a crown pillar in the mine had failed and had allowed more than a million cubic feet of liquid sediment to enter the mine.

Eventually, the company was taken to court, but a jury decided the company had not been negligent and that the conditions at the Belmoral Mine were no different from other mining operations in Quebec.

It was not until July 30, more than two months after the initial collapse, that the last two bodies were discovered and brought to surface. Autopsy results would reveal that all eight miners had died from either drowning or asphyxiation.

The dead miners were identified as Marcel Vienneau, 40; Guy Desruisseaux, 26; Guy Daigle, 28; Normand Masse, 34; Gilles Legare, 32; Marc Godbout, 24; Lucien Belanger, 27; and Yvan St. Pierre, 32.

It is a sad memory in the history of mining in Canada. 

Len Gillis covers mining and health care for

Len Gillis

About the Author: Len Gillis

Graduating from the Journalism program at Canadore College in the 1970s, Gillis has spent most of his career reporting on news events across Northern Ontario with several radio, television and newspaper companies. He also spent time as a hardrock miner.
Read more

Reader Feedback