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Antonio Fusillo, the brother of one of the workers who died in the Hoggs Hollow Disaster, is overcome with emotion as he examines Laurie Swim's memorial quilt unveiled at York Mills Subway station, March 17, 2010. - Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star file photo
Antonio Fusillo, the brother of one of the workers who died in the Hoggs Hollow Disaster, is overcome with emotion as he examines Laurie Swim's memorial quilt unveiled at York Mills Subway station, March 17, 2010. - Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star file photo

North York’s Hoggs Hollow Disaster of 1960 Killed 5 Construction Workers

Disaster led to major overhaul of labour laws, writes Susan Goldenberg

This year marks the 61st anniversary of North York’s terrible “Hoggs Hollow Disaster.”

At 6 p.m. on March 17, 1960, twelve young Italian immigrant construction workers in their twenties installing a water main under the Don River at Hoggs Hollow near Yonge Street and York Mills Road were nearing the end of their shift when a fire suddenly erupted in the tunnel.

They were helpless because the contractor, experiencing financial difficulties, hadn’t provided even minimal safety measures and provincial government department of labour inspectors had turned a blind eye.

The workers, anxious to make money for their families, had tolerated the bad conditions.

There were no fire extinguishers, the exhaust pipe valve didn’t work, air compressors failed, the timber supports were so weak that they quickly toppled and there was no protective floor grout to keep out water, sand and silt from the river. There weren’t even flashlights.

Firefighters arrived quickly, only to be ordered not to immediately turn on their hoses for fear the water pressure would collapse the tunnel. Officials dithered. Relatives gathered, weeping.

A crowd of rescue workers surround a shaft March 18, 1960 in the aftermath of the Hoggs Hollow Tunnel disaster. - Art James/Toronto Star file photo
A crowd of rescue workers surround a shaft March 18, 1960 in the aftermath of the Hoggs Hollow Tunnel disaster. – Art James/Toronto Star file photo

Six workers escaped, a seventh was heroically rescued. The remaining five died: Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo and brothers Alessandro and Guido Mantella, huddled together.

The Toronto Telegram’s huge front-page headline captured the horror: “Sealed In A Hell Hole.”

The official cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning and drowning. The blame for the fire was placed on a spark from an electric welding torch accidentally igniting cables on the tunnel floor.

But a coroner’s jury ruled that the deaths were “the inevitable result of the failure to implement and enforce regulations.” It also blamed “callous management” and a “disorganized response.” No criminal charges, however, were laid.

Public fury spurred the Ontario government to create a Royal Commission which led to a major overhaul of the province’s labour laws including new regulations for worker safety in tunnels and the establishment of the Ontario Labour Safety Council.

Over time the tragedy was forgotten. This was rectified in 2010 by the installation of a commemorative quilt at York Mills subway station.

Written by Susan Goldenberg.

Originally published on March 20, 2021, on toronto.com.