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'Tragedy ... stays with you': After 35 years, speakers note crowds dwindling at Falconbridge tragedy memorial

Speakers say it's important to keep the memory of the tragedy alive

Gary Hrytsak was working as an electrician at Falconbridge's smelter 35 years ago when the complex was hit with a seismic event.

He didn't know it at first, but that ground shaking led to the deaths of four fellow Falconbridge workers.

Sulo Korpela, Richard Chenier, Daniel Lavalle and Wayne St. Michel lost their lives at Falconbridge Mine on June 20, 1984.

A seismic event measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale resulted in a fall of ground that killed the miners.

Hrytsak was taking a nap during his coffee break when the ground started shaking.

“I got violently thrown off that bench and I ended up on the floor,” said Hrytsak, who's also a former compensation, health and welfare officer with Mine Mill. “I thought that the smelter had exploded.”

As it turned out, Hrytsak was acquainted with one of the workers who passed away.

He sat on the Ontario Apprentice Committee, and at the time, Falconbridge was making some cutbacks, putting some workers — including Wayne St. Michel — at risk of not being able to complete their apprenticeships.

Working with Cambrian College, Hrytsak and other committee members were able to find a way to ensure St. Michel and the other apprentices were able to put in enough hours.

But that's how St. Michel came to be underground that day, Hrytsak said.

“A good intention, a good thing, led to a tragedy for one family,” he said. “I didn't know that Wayne was one of the persons that perished until 12 to 15 hours later. All of that tragedy, it just stays with you.”

Mine Mill Local 598 (now part of Unifor) has been marking the anniversary of the tragedy since 1985.

Workers' Memorial Day has since been expanded to remember all workers who have lost their lives due to an on-the-job accident or industrial disease.

The speakers' list at this year's event included Hrytsak, as well as officials with both Unifor and Falconbridge, Mayor Brian Bigger and Greater Sudbury Police Chief Paul Pedersen.

Several speakers commented on the aging and dwindling crowds at the event after the passage of more than three decades.

But Hrytsak said he doesn't see the empty chairs as actually being empty.

“I see the spirit of all of our brothers and sisters who perished are sitting here with us, giving us the strength to keep on battling for those of us that are alive,” he said.

Peter Xavier, vice-president of Glencore's Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations (formerly known as Falconbridge), is a yearly speaker at Workers' Memorial Day.

As the years go by, there's increasingly fewer workers at the company who were there in 1984, said Xavier.

That's why it's important to pass these stories on to the next generation, he said, issuing a challenge to Workers' Memorial Day attendees to invite a younger worker to come with them next year.

The event is also an opportunity to remember all of those who have lost their lives at the company due to workplace injuries and illnesses since its formation in Sudbury in 1929, he said.

The 1984 tragedy was a “defining moment for our community” that started a lot of advancement in geotechnical efforts, Xavier said.

“I think these occasions are important for reflection and remembrance, to never get complacent,” said Xavier, who spoke extensively to those in the audience of Glencore's goal of zero harm to its workers.

“Be proud of the improvement, but pay our respects.”