Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tragedy At Hogg's Hollow

Rescue efforts

Toronto has been, in the most literal way possible, built by immigrants. English hands raised the timbers of Fort York. Germans carved Yonge Street out of the forest. Irishmen and Italians, Ukrainians, Poles and people from all over the world have built our bridges, paved our streets and erected one of the tallest buildings in the history of the world. 

In return, generally, they've been treated like shit.

The example that comes up most often is from March 17, 1960. That night, in a tunnel more than 10 meters beneath the snowy ground near Yonge and York Mills—in the not-in-any-way-related-to-the-Harry-Potter-franchise Hogg's Hollow neighbourhood—a dozen construction workers were putting in a new water main. The sandhogs, as they were called, were working in stupidly unsafe conditions, unprotected by any meaningful safety regulations. There were no fire extinguishers. No flashlights. Weak support beams. Inadequate equipment. And no way of communicating with the outside world. Supervisors who complained were fired.

It was around six o'clock that they first noticed the smoke. Half of the workers escaped quickly to safety, but six men were trapped below as the fire spread. The heat was intense. The smoke was toxic. And the tunnel was filling with water.

"I tore my shirt off, soaked it in water and covered my face with it," remembered one of the workers (a Belgian, the only non-Italian in the group). "The other five did that but kept their heads up. They started screaming 'Mama Mia.' They got down on their knees and started to pray. I couldn’t keep them quiet. I told them to stay put, that the boys upstairs would come down and get us out. They wouldn’t keep their heads down and conserve energy. The smoke was awful and then the water hit us. It came up to our knees. I was scared but I knew they would come and get us out. But the heat was draining our energy. There was a glimmer of hope; I could see a light from the shaft and I just knew we would be all right. I started back toward the shaft. The other five wouldn’t come with me. They were screaming and down on their knees praying. I grabbed Pasquale Allegrezza by the shirt and started dragging him along the pipe. There was no room to carry him and I couldn’t fight the smoke any longer. I had to let go of Pasquale. Another few feet and I had to put my face down on the pipe. I was sleepy. And then I guess I passed out. Just before I passed out I was afraid for the first time that I would not get out."

Meanwhile, on the surface, rescue workers were in disarray. Their equipment wasn't working either,  there was no back-up plan, and no one could get to the men.  The fire was just too hot; the valve to clear the tunnel of smoke was stuck and there was a risk the whole thing would collapse. A couple of men who did crawl in only made it far enough to hear the moaning voices before they were forced to turn back. It would be more than an hour before anyone else could enter the tunnel. And by then, Pasqualle Allegrezza, Giovanni Fusillo, Giovanni Correglio, Alessandro Mantella, and Guido Mantella were all dead. The Belgian was the only survivor, miraculously dragged to safety, disoriented but alive, hours after the fire had started.

The city's Italian community was devastated. In the wake of the disaster, a fund was set up to help the victims' families and Johnny Lombardi (the friendly old fellow who ran CHIN until he died a few years ago) held a benefit concert at Massey Hall.  On the political front, the Toronto Telegram  led the charge, running one front page story after the other with headlines like "SLAVE IMMIGRANTS" until, finally, the provincial government ordered a Royal Commission to investigate. In the end,  stricter safety and labour laws were passed.

And that's pretty much been it. As the Toronto Star pointed out in an article last year, the laws haven't really been updated since.  More than 400 construction workers in Ontario have died on the job since 1990—most of them in gruesome and preventable ways: crushed by equipment, fallen from scaffolding, drowned, electrocuted, sliced open. And as employers continue find ways around the fifty-year old  laws, those numbers are expected to go up.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
I can't stress enough how much this post owes to Jamie Bradburn's Historicist article about the tragedy over at Torontoist, which you should totally read, here. You can find more info and pictures on the city's website here, and from a Toronto Star article about the commemorate quilt that now hangs in York Mills Station here

Oh and if you're wondering why the neighbourhood around Yonge and York Mills is called Hogg's Hollow, it's cuz of a dude named Joseph Hogg, a Scotsman who ran a whiskey distillery there back in the 1800s. 

This post is related to dream
03 The Death of Giovanni Fusillo
Giovanni Fusillo, 1960


  1. James Hogg, not Joseph Hogg

  2. This story breaks my heart.
    Scott Kennedy