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Hogg’s Hollow tragedy changed Ontario’s construction industry

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In the days after the Hogg’s Hollow tragedy of March 17, 1960, remembered today on its 50th anniversary, many hard working immigrant construction workers were thankful to reach the end of the work day, as were their loved ones.

Hogg’s Hollow tragedy | 50 Years later

In the days after the Hogg’s Hollow tragedy of March 17, 1960, remembered today on its 50th anniversary, many hard working immigrant construction workers were thankful to reach the end of the work day, as were their loved ones.

“My sister and I used to sit on the front stoop every night waiting for my father to turn the corner. Hogg’s Hollow was an absolutely devastating experience,” recalled Cosmo Manella, director, health and safety, Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).

Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Battista Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo, Alessandro and Guido Mantella, known as “sandhogs” for the tunneling work they did, all lost their lives 50 years ago in a Hogg’s Hollow watermain tunnel.

A brutal combination of carbon monoxide poisoning and drowning in silt and water, took their lives after a fire started underground.

The deaths were a rallying cry for health and safety reform in Ontario, casting a piercing light on the poor working conditions that a majority of immigrant labourers were subjected to.

The poorly lit tunnel was 35 feet underground and ran below the Don River, near Yonge Street and York Mills.

It was six feet in diameter and had a 36 inch watermain running through it.

Air pressure was used to compensate for soft tunneling conditions, helping to avoid cave-ins and the entry of water and silt.

However, it also created an oxygen-rich environment where one spark could create a wildfire.

“That job they were on was a haywire job,” said Nester Buchinski, 75, who entered the smoke and silt filled tunnel to try and save the trapped men.

“The company did not know enough about construction. They wanted to make money and ended up taking five lives out of there.”

The project, worth $300,000 at the time, would eventually result in a watermain connection.

Jack Harrop Construction was originally responsible for the project, but ran into financial difficulties. A trust company had taken over.

Six men were in the tunnel, when a cutting torch ignited the rubberized electrical cable it was attached to. Once started, it roared, and was further fueled by oil residue courtesy of a poorly serviced air compressor, an inquest would reveal.

Deadly fumes filled the cavern. One worker managed to escape, but the other five didn’t.

In order to avoid noxious fumes, they ran from the lone exit, blocked by fire, and headed towards the opposite end of the tunnel, which ended at a concrete bulkhead 300 feet away.

Investigators found that no fire extinguishers, resuscitator masks or flashlights were in the tunnel, nor any telephone system set up.

When emergency personnel turned off the air compressor to stop feeding the flames oxygen, they sealed the fate of the five men.

With no pressure, water and silt started to seep in, filling the tunnel and piling up near the bulkhead, where the workers would later be found. An inquest would reveal some of the workers had water and silt in their lungs, pointing to an excruciating drowning death.

Buchinski, 26 at the time, was one of four men who volunteered for a rescue effort. The confined conditions in the tunnel meant rescuers had to squirm their way through silt and water.

“It was dark and there was a lot of water. We found one body lying over top of the pipe,” he recalled somberly.

Buchinski was plagued with nightmares for years. The helplessness he felt that night is still very real today.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said.

“It was at night and I didn’t even know it was under the river. We were stupid to go into a place like that in those conditions.”

It would take three days for rescuers to retrieve the bodies. No charges were ever laid.

The Italian community and immigrants in construction were fuelled with rage and sorrow. As Toronto grew, fatal accidents had become too frequent.

Gerry Gallagher was business manager of Local 183 at the time. His leadership following the tragedy is lauded to this day.

He had tried to unionize the project prior to its collapse, noted Mike Gallagher, Gerry’s son and current head of Operating Engineers Local 793.

“He was horrified at the job’s safety conditions and at what prevailed all over the province,” he explained.

“After the disaster, he pushed for stricter regulations in tunnel sites, where compressed air was used.”

Gallagher played a prominent part in establishing the Royal Commission on Industrial Safety, known as the McAndrew Commission.

Well into the 1970s, changes continued to be made in Ontario workplace health and safety laws thanks to the powerful organization of immigrant workers and trade unions, which formed after the tragedy

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