The Commission’s files attest to the heroic actions of industrial workers who, in an era when the workplace often proved dangerous, risked their own safety to assist coworkers facing a mortal threat.
One such act was that of Semko Sawczyuk, who left his native Galicia, a province of Austria-Hungary, in 1912 at the age of 19 to join other Ukrainian-speaking immigrants in the Whitney Pier section of Sydney, N.S. By 1928, he and his wife Domka had purchased their own home and had four children. Sawczyuk, then 35, had worked in the city’s Dominion Iron and Steel Co. mill for 11 years and was a boiler washer. The mill was then one of the largest in the British Empire.
On March 15 of that year, Sawczyuk and coworker Alexander McNeil, 23, were cleaning a boiler at the mill. Extending one foot above a grate on which the men were standing was a horizontal shaft turning at about 55 revolutions a minute. Officials concluded that McNeil lost his balance and fell backward against the shaft and that his clothing became caught and twisted around it. McNeil himself was then whirled around the shaft.
Sawczyuk attempted to free McNeil, but he too was caught by the revolving shaft and then was thrown onto the grate. Coworkers were immediately aware of the accident and ran to the scene, where they shut off the power to the shaft.
McNeil suffered severe head and upper body injuries and was dead at the scene. Sawczyuk, although conscious, was bleeding heavily. His left hand had been severed, and the rest of the arm was nearly torn off. The mill maintained its own hospital on the grounds, and Sawczyuk was taken there for treatment. Three days later the mangled arm was amputated, but Sawczyuk did not tolerate the resulting shock and died the following day, leaving a widow and four children. Ten months later, the Commission awarded the Carnegie Medal to him posthumously for his heroic attempt.
Although the province of Nova Scotia had a Workers’ Compensation Board, which provided some monetary benefits to families of workplace victims, there were no other federal or provincial aid programs. Recognizing the family’s need, the Hero Fund approved a monthly grant to Mrs. Sawczyuk in an amount that exceeded her provincial benefit, and the grant continued until her death in 1974. During those 46 years, the Commission maintained close contact with Mrs. Sawczyuk, including personal visits by the Hero Fund’s representatives.