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The Hoggs Hollow Disaster

By: Laurel Broens

Laurel Broens

Contributing Historian

Laurel is a graduate of the Master of Library and Information Studies program from the University of Alberta and holds a BA in Economics and a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Calgary. She has worked in the information management field for over a decade in a career spanning public and academic libraries and government and legal records management. Laurel is a proud member of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and is the current chair of AUPE Local 002, Chapter 002 which represents more than 4700 Government of Alberta administrative and program services workers in the Edmonton area. In her spare time, Laurel runs the popular labour history Twitter account @labour_girl.

When a North York Fire Department dispatcher took an emergency call on March 17, 1960, they had no idea that a seemingly minor rubbish fire would turn out to be a catalyst for a radical overhaul of Ontario’s health and safety laws.[i] In fact, as fire officials arrived at the scene in Toronto’s Hoggs Hollow neighbourhood, they quickly realized this was no minor fire: six men were trapped nearly 10 meters underground. While one was rescued later that night, the other five tragically perished in what became known as the “Hoggs Hollow Disaster.”

Hoggs Hollow is a residential neighbourhood in the Toronto suburb of North York. The neighbourhood grew in stages, starting in 1856 when John and William Hogg subdivided their father’s estate, and was completed in the 1960s. The Hoggs Hollow tunnel, managed by the J. H. Harrop Construction Company, was part of an ambitious project to build a watermain that would supply North York with fresh water. It ran under the Don River and was accessed by workers using a shaft north of the Hoggs Hollow bridge. These workers were informally referred to as “sandhogs,” a slang term given to skilled men who performed tunnel work in North America.[ii]

At approximately 5:50 p.m. that afternoon, Charles Valentini had been working inside the pit with a crew welding steel plates when the tunnel suddenly filled with noxious fumes. Valentini ran for his life toward the pithead, leaving six other men behind. He later fought his way back underground to try to rescue his co-workers. But due to the intense heat and the water rapidly filling the tunnel, he was forced to retreat.[iii]

Blood and Sweat Remain, but Urgency Gone From Death Tunnel, The Globe and Mail, Mar 19, 1960 pg. 5

The scorching heat and the rising water in the tunnel created a massive barrier to early rescue attempts. Three hours after the fire began, one man, Walter Andruschuk, was brought out alive. Before losing consciousness, he had crawled through the smoke and fire toward the tunnel entrance, and within reach of the rescue team. However, it quickly became obvious that the other five men had not had the same opportunity to move towards safety.[iv] The night ended with the deaths of five men, all Italian immigrants: Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Battista Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo, and brothers Alessandro and Guido Mantella.[v]

What started as a rescue mission became a recovery effort. Rescue workers had erroneously turned off the tunnel’s air compressors which lowered the air pressure in the tunnel and caused it to fill with water, creating a layer of thick mud that made retrieving the dead extremely difficult. Although Allegrezza’s body was brought to the surface eight hours after the rescue began, it took rescuers nearly five days to retrieve the other four men.

Rescuers Fight to Bring Out Men in Tunnel, The Globe and Mail (1936-2017); Mar 18, 1960; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Globe and Mail pg. 15.

Toronto’s Italian community quickly rallied around the families of the deceased with the Italian Immigrant Aid Society, a charitable organization that provided support to Italian newcomers, starting a relief fund and an anonymous contractor offering rent-free apartments for a year to each surviving family. All five men had arrived in Toronto within the previous four years, seeking a better life.

The day after the accident, Ontario attorney general Kelso Roberts announced an inquest into the tragedy, to begin as soon as possible.[vi] The government kept true to his promise and the inquiry began on March 31, 1960, scarcely two weeks after the disaster. Assistant deputy attorney general Eric Silk represented the Crown while Dr. D. K. McAteer and Dr. Ralph Johns, the North York coroners who had examined the bodies, conducted the inquest.[vii]

The inquiry brought to light a number of deficiencies with the Hoggs Hollow project and with Ontario’s construction industry as a whole. In July, 1959, the J. H. Harrop Construction Co. had run into financial difficulties and was taken over by an American bonding agent, the Guarantee Company of North America. Guarantee brought in another company, Fetterly Adjustment Services, to help manage its interests in the tunnel project. The multiple changes in management caused confusion over who was responsible at the time of the accident.

Murray Frank, a construction supervisor for J.H. Harrop, had clashed with Robert Kipp, a representative of Guarantee, in the days leading up to the accident. Kipp was brought on the project as an assistant to Frank after Fetterly complained the job was going too slowly and costs were increasing. Weeks earlier, in fact, Frank had threatened to quit over concerns that the project was being rammed through unsafely, but ultimately decided to stay on the job.[viii]

Rescuers Fight to Bring Out Men in Tunnel, The Globe and Mail, Mar 18, 1960, pg. 15.

Testimony from Frank and other workers on the project revealed that even the most basic safety protocols were being neglected. There were no fire extinguishers or breathing equipment in the tunnel, and the men were not equipped with hard hats, safety shoes, or protective clothing of any kind. They worked in near complete darkness as there were no functional lights in the tunnel and flashlights had not been provided. Additionally, a telephone within the tunnel had been removed for repairs prior to the fire. The only way the workers could report a problem was to use a switch attached to a red light above ground. However, once the fire began, none of the men were able to reach the switch in time. Matteo Fusillo testified that nearly everyone smoked in the tunnel as they had never been warned about the consequences of combustion under high pressure. Air under high pressure air has a higher concentration of oxygen molecules which cause fires to burn more quickly and increases the risk of a haphazardly discarded cigarette igniting a blaze.

When working under compressed air, workers must enter a decompression chamber prior to returning to the surface to avoid decompression sickness, commonly know as “the bends”. Romeo Parise, who worked as a lock tender, told the inquiry that he had never been provided with instructions on operating the air lock chamber and did not know how long to keep workers in it. He stated that an official had posted a “piece of paper” at some point during his employment but when asked to confirm the information it contained, Parise replied that he “didn’t read English very well”.

A lack of training and instruction in Italian was a common concern. Many of the workers were inexperienced, untrained, and unqualified for underground work and did not fully understand their health and safety rights. Dr. McAteer called the attitude of management toward worker safety “no less than callous”.[ix]

A crucial mistake made on the day of the disaster occurred when rescue workers turned off both air compressors following the tunnel fire, which caused the tunnel to become unstable, and fill with water and silt from the Don River. Experts testified that rescue operations would have begun much earlier without the water obstacle, and that this error in judgement reflected a failure of management to plan for an emergency.

Diagram of the disaster. The Toronto Telegram, March 24, 1960.

On April 2, 1960, the coroner’s jury ruled that failure to adhere to regulations directing work under compressed air conditions had caused the deaths of the workers. The jury did not place the blame on any individual because its members believed this practice represented a systemic problem and similar conditions existed throughout “an irresponsible segment of the industry engaged in sub-surface construction.”[x] The jury ultimately concluded that the provincial Department of Labour’s regulations for work under compressed air conditions required extensive modernization, and made four specific recommendations:

1. The Department of Labour should conduct an exhaustive study on health and safety under compressed air;

2. Where the majority of workers speak a language other than English, safety literature must be provided in both languages;

3. The Department of Labour should provide and enforce inspections for underground work;

4. When a contractor cannot complete a project, the authority awarded the contract is responsible for ensuring the job is completed by qualified persons.

The cause of death for the five men was officially listed as “acute carbon-monoxide poisoning and suffocation due to the inhalation of smoke, sand and water.”[xi]

In response to the inquiry’s results, Premier Leslie Frost assured an enraged public that his government would make every effort to modernize Ontario’s compressed air tunnelling safety laws. He quickly established a three-person commission to examine tunnel safety statutes and regulations. The Royal Commission on Industrial Safety convened in April, 1960.

The official mandate of the commission was to inquire into all worker safety statutes and regulations administered by the Department of Labour. As Frost asserted, “it is the government’s intention to take every possible step to guarantee that temporary language difficulties and their lack of familiarity with their new country will not permit injustices to blight the lives of newcomers to our province.”[xii] He declared the government would use the conclusions of the commission to improve, simplify, clarify and modernize the laws. “[I]f the regulations that we have are not the most modern, I want them to be.”

The Royal Commission concluded after 17 hearings, during which it collected testimony from nearly 120 witnesses and reviewed 160 exhibits. The Commission’s 124-page report called for significant changes to legislation governing industrial safety in Ontario, including: licensing of all buildings, contractors, and subcontractors in the construction industry; repealing and replacing the Building Trades Protection Act of 1911; ensuring new legislation clearly states that the responsibility for enforcement lies with the Department of Labour; and increasing the maximum penalty for offenses contrary to the Act. The Commissioners also examined and made recommendations on safety regulations in other industries, including logging, high structural steel construction, and radioactive material handling.[xiii]

In direct response to the Hoggs Hollow disaster, the Commission report recommended a number of changes specifically to work under compressed air, including: ensuring police and firefighters are trained in tunnel rescue work; workers are advised of the hazards of construction under compressed air; and all relevant sections from the Mining Act are incorporated into compressed air regulations.

Finally, the Commission recommended the establishment of an “Ontario safety council” made up of seven members representing industry, labour, and other stakeholders. The purpose of the council would be to continue the work of the Commission by committing to an ongoing study of all legislation and regulations pertaining to accidents and prevention, industrial health and hygiene, inspection and enforcement, and safety standards.

The High Drama of Midnight Rescue at Hoggs Hollow. The Toronto Telegram, March 18, 1960.

While Ontario’s government was focused on the Commission, a grassroots union organizing movement was also quickly growing in Ontario’s construction industry. While there had been previous attempts to unionize Hoggs Hollow and other similar projects, the accident proved to be a catalyst for change. Workers across the province began joining unions in record numbers. Two influential labour leaders at the time, Charlie Irvine of the International Hod Carriers, Building and Common Labourers Union of America, and Bruno Zanini of the Bricklayers Union, were quietly building a movement of tradespeople.[xiv]

On a Sunday afternoon in early August, 1960, Irvine and Zanini organized a rally at the Italian-Canadian Recreation Club on Brandon Avenue; two thousand people attended. Two weeks later, they met again and formed an organization called “The Brandon Group.” This new union consisted of members across various trades, all of which were represented on the board. At the time, 3,000 men voted in favour of striking. The next morning, volunteers drove around the city, stopping at residential construction sites to persuade workers to join their strike.[xv]

A second, larger strike began on May 29, 1961. This action included highway and subway tunnel workers along with the residential construction workers who had organized the original strike. In early June, Irvine and Zanini were invited to meet with Frost, who offered a deal in return for ending the strike: he would establish a tribunal to hear their grievances, an investigation on wage cheating and cutting corners on existing safety laws, and another royal commission to examine all aspects of labour-management relations. However, Irvine and Zanini did not call for the strike to end until July 16, at which point they finally accepted Frost’s terms. Toronto Telegram reporter Frank Drea called this Canada’s greatest labour victory since the steel strike of 1946. “Their days of exploitation,” he wrote, “are ended forever.”[xvi]

While no criminal charges were ever laid in the Hoggs Hollow disaster, the accident forced Ontario to modernize its labour codes, safety regulations, and compensation laws. In the aftermath, all aspects of labour law were re-examined, with a particular eye on health and safety standards, culminating in Ontario’s new Industrial Safety Act. Later in the 1960s, this Act became the foundation for the Canada Labour (Safety) Code. Today, as a consequence, Ontario has some of the lowest construction accident rates in North America.[xvii]

Even though the Hoggs Hollow Disaster resulted in extensive changes to Ontario’s health and safety legislation, the five men had been largely forgotten as the 40th anniversary approached in 2000. Until then, no memorials or plaques had been erected in their memory. After learning about the disaster, Toronto artist Laurie Swim began designing a two by six metre quilt depicting the final moments of the five men in collaboration with COSTI, an newcomer aid organization formed by the amalgamation of 2 service agencies including the former Italian Immigrant Aid Society. Unions representing subway construction workers in Toronto called on the City to hang the finished quilt in a place of honour, and to erect a public plaque at the site where the men had lost their lives.[xviii]

In March, 2000, a public ceremony was held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. A few weeks later, Mayor Mel Lastman announced that the City of Toronto would install a memorial plaque at the Hoggs Hollow accident site. Swim’s quilt, officially titled “Breaking Ground, The Hoggs Hollow Disaster,” was completed later that year[xix] and was officially unveiled in its permanent home, in the York Mills subway station on the 50th anniversary.[xx] (The York Mills station is located at the bottom of the Hoggs Hollow valley.)

“Hoggs Hollow changed forever the relationship of immigrants to the City of Toronto,” Toronto and York Region Labour Council president John Cartwright stated at the time. “Wave after wave of immigrants that subsequently came to this city all owe a debt of gratitude to those five men, their sacrifice and the courage of the Italian community which demanded a new deal for immigrants in this city.”[xxi]


Resources

[i]  Bagnell, Kenneth. Canadese: A Portrait of the Italian Canadians. MacMillan of Canada, 1989, Chapter 7.

[ii] Versace, Vince. “Dangers Still Exist Underground.” Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, vol. 83, no. 53, 2010, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[iii] Ghafour, Hamida. “Survivor recalls Hoggs Hollow disaster.” The Globe and Mail, 16 Mar. 2000. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[iv] Winsa, Patty. “Tapestry pays tribute to a forgotten tale: Artist unveils quilt to honour victims of Hoggs Hollow disaster.” Toronto Star, 17 Mar. 2010, p.3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[v]  Primary sources include several spellings of the men’s names.

[vi] “Tunnel Tragedy Families Offered Free Apartments.” The Globe and Mail, 25 Mar. 1960, p. 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[vii] “Deadline Kept Hoggs Hollow Death Hole Open: Witness.” The Globe and Mail, 1 Apr. 1960, p. 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[viii] “Fired Because of Safety Demands, Ex-Foremand Says at Hogg’s Hollow Inquest.” The Globe and Mail, 2 Apr. 1960, p. 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[ix] “Criminal Charges May Follow Study of Hoggs Hollow Data.” The Globe and Mail, 4 Apr. 1960, p. 1-2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid

[xii] “Queen’s Park and Hoggs Hollow.” The Globe and Mail. 7 Apr. 1960, p. 6,9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[xiii]  “Royal Commission Urges Licensing of All Builders, Contractors in Ontario.” The Globe and Mail, 21 Oct. 1961, p. 4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[xiv] Stefanini, John. More than We Bargained For: An Untold Story of Exploitation, Redemption, and the Men Who Built a Worker’s Empire. Sutherland House, 2019, p.13.

[xv] Gombu, Phinjo. “Workers met death beneath the Don; Remembering the five who perished at Hoggs Hollow.” Toronto Star, 10 Feb. 2000, p.1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[xvi] Bagnell, Chapter 7.

[xvii] Bradneer, Janice. “The long march behind Labour Day parade.” Toronto Star, 4 Sep. 2016, p.7. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[xviii] “Recognize 1960 tunnel deaths of five construction workers in Toronto’s Hoggs Hollow, say Sheppard subway tunnellers.” Canada NewsWire, 15 Mar. 2000, p. 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[xix]  Wilkes, Jim. “Workers who died on job are honoured; Quilt pays tribute to five men killed in 1960 disaster.” Toronto Star, 29 Apr. 2000, p. 1.

[xx] “View the Hoggs Hollow Memorial mural – York Mills subway station.” Canada NewsWire, 15 Mar. 2010. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[xxi] “Tragedy reached beyond Toronto, forcing change.” Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, vol. 83, no. 52, 2010, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.