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Giant bombing still haunts Witte

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 19/04) - Nearly 12 years after the explosion that killed nine men at Giant Mine, Peggy Witte returned to Yellowknife to testify about the strike and the murders that gripped the city during the tumultuous summer and fall of 1992.

NNSL Photo

Peggy Witte was in Yellowknife this week to testify in a civil suit stemming from the 1992 Giant mine explosion. - Andrew Raven/NNSL photo

Roughly a dozen people and two sheriff's deputies -- twice the usual complement -- watched from the gallery as Witte took the stand Wednesday. The case began last fall and is expected to be the longest trial in Canadian history by the time it wraps up.

The action was launched by the families of the men killed by the home-made explosive, which was planted 750 feet below the surface by striking miner Roger Warren on Sept. 18, 1992.

"That was the worst day of my life," said Witte, voice trembling, on the stand. Witte has sometimes been lauded, sometimes reviled for her part in the disaster.

"I still think about it," she said outside the courtroom following her testimony.

Witte, described by one person in the gallery as a union buster and a ruthless profiteer and by another as a brilliant businesswoman, was president of Royal Oak Ventures, the company that owned Giant Mine at the time of the blast.

The families of the nine dead miners say Witte, along with a host of other defendants including Royal Oak and the territorial government, didn't do enough to prevent Warren from sneaking into the mine and planting the deadly explosives.

During her testimony, Witte talked about the events that led to the bitter strike, the fatal bombing and the acrimony that still exists in Yellowknife.

Shut down not an option

Witte said she first realized the strike at Giant would be a long one after a brief conversation with union head Ross Slezak in his Vancouver hotel room on June 5, 1992.

"He said their objective was to take the company down," Witte said.

The workers went on strike about two weeks earlier and company officials guessed they would be sitting out for the rest of the summer, something miner Jim Fournier didn't disagree with.

"Most of the boys had some money in their pockets, so they figured they could sit out for the summer and go back to work in the fall," said Fournier, who has been watching the trial since it began in October.

Shutting the mine down wasn't an option, Witte said. Initial estimates revealed it would have cost about $600,000 per month to keep the 70 miles of underground passageways from flooding and the tailings ponds operational.

"We couldn't just walk away," she said.

The company contemplated sending management staff underground, believing they could keep production levels at about half of what they were before the strike, Witte continued.

But executives quickly realized that wouldn't work and decided to hire replacement workers, which up to that point was almost unheard of in the mining industry.

"Some of the staff hadn't been underground for years," said Witte. "They weren't physically able to do the work."

The decision to hire replacement workers was made collectively by the management board, Witte testified, though she drew most of the criticism from the striking miners.

During the standoff, they held up signs that read "Miss Piggy," a reference to Witte's weight.

But the signs, which Witte dismissed as "strike propaganda" weren't nearly as troubling as the relatively frequent threats she received from a union she described as "radical."

The former president of Royal Oak said she would receive notes in the mail, written with letters cut out of magazines and newspapers warning her to "watch out" because "we're going to get you."

"It was just like on TV," she said.

Sept. 18, blast day

On Sept. 18, nine replacement workers were killed when their mancar was blown to shreds by a bomb, 750 feet below the surface. On that day, Witte was in Hawaii.

She testified that she was called early in the morning by a company official in Yellowknife. They said there had been an explosion but at the time the details were still sketchy, she said.

A few hours later, the same official called back to say there had been fatalities.

Witte immediately flew from Honolulu to Vancouver and then to Yellowknife, where she arrived at around 3 a.m. the following day.

After meeting with the wives of the miners killed in the blast, Witte spoke with RCMP officers who, she testified, told her they believed the explosion had been deliberately set.

"I couldn't fathom the whole situation," she said.

"I immediately thought it was one of our miners or somebody who had worked for us. It was the worst day of my life."

Not much sympathy

But Fournier, an active member of the union in 1992 who worked at Giant for 20 years, doesn't see Witte as a sympathetic figure.

"She came in, made her money and left," said Fournier in an interview outside court.

"I'm the one who lost my pension."

On the stand, Witte suggested the union was asking for too many concessions from the company during the contract negotiations, something Fournier disagreed with.

"Everybody thought 'Oh those greedy miners, they just want more money,' which may have been true to a certain extent," Fournier said.

"But you have to remember, most of the guys were making about $60,000 per year and spending their entire day in a hole to earn it."

He suggested the company -- backed by others in the mining industry -- wanted to break the back of the union to discourage other Canadian miners from striking.

"It worked," he said.

"They're still making the same today as they were 12 years ago."

Fournier said the men at Giant weren't used to the strict conditions and cost-cutting measures Witte imposed after taking over the mine from a bankrupt Australian company in 1990.

"The men were used to a certain standard and Royal Oak came in and changed that," he said.

A lot of the bitterness that surrounded the strike is still around today, Fournier said.

"Maybe even more now than before," he added.

"After all she's opened a new mine somewhere else and we're still here, without a mine and without our pensions."

After her testimony Wednesday morning, Witte paused for a brief conversation with reporters outside of the courtroom and even posed for a picture -- minus the familiar security detail that kept a close watch over her during the strike.

With a demure smile, she spoke about how the city has changed since her last visit and how she still thinks about Sept. 18, 1992.

"It's a day I won't forget," she said.

Witte's testimony continued Thursday in a trial that isn't expected to finish before the summer.