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On March 17, 1960, Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo and brothers Alessandro and Guido Mantella were working 10 metres below ground in a tunnel underneath the Don River when all hell broke loose
By Enzo DiMatteo
Jul 11, 2021
Photo credit: Driftscape.com
Hogg’s Hollow disaster memorial plaque and commemorative quilt
Southwest corner of Yonge and York Mills; mezzanine at York Mills subway station
Thousands of Italian immigrants came to Canada after the Second World War to chase the American Dream in the so-called New World. By 1960, Italy would surpass the UK as Canada’s main source of immigration.
Most of them were migrant workers who arrived in Toronto on short-term labour contracts. They went to work to build the roads and bridges of a growing metropolis. They were known as the “pick and shovel” crew, owing to the tools they used for their work. And then there were the “sandhogs” – those who dug the tunnels by hand for the city’s water mains and sewer system.
On March 17, 1960, Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo and brothers Alessandro and Guido Mantella were working 10 metres below ground in a tunnel underneath the Don River that was being built to connect to the Hogg’s Hollow pumping station on the other side of the river.
It was nearing the end of another 12-hour shift. The workers should have gone home but the tunnel was already a year behind schedule following the firing of a failed contractor and others delays. There was pressure to complete the work. Allegrezza and his compatriots were among a dozen or so workers still in the tunnel welding steel plating when a spark from a torch hit and ignited rubber cables running along the tunnel floor, causing smoke to fill the chamber.
A valve to blow the smoke out of the tunnel would not open. Firefighters arrived on the scene quickly but timber supports holding the tunnel had already partially collapsed. They waited 30 minutes before sending water to fight the flames for fear the tunnel might cave in entirely. Some workers managed to escape, but those trapped inside were faced with extreme temperatures and toxic smoke from the fire as well as rising levels of water, sand and silt from the Don.
It would not be until the next day that rescue workers could get to those inside. Allegrezza, Carriglio, Fusillo and the Mantella brothers were found dead. They were all in their 20s. The front-page headline in the Toronto Telegram captured the horror: Sealed In A Hell Hole.
The official cause of death was listed as carbon monoxide poisoning and drowning. But a coroner’s inquest later found that the deaths were “the inevitable result of the failure to implement and enforce regulations.” Public outrage and a series of strikes that followed caused the Ontario government to order a Royal Commission into the tragedy. That would ultimately lead to the passage of tougher regulations on fire protection and worker safety in tunnels as well as the first major overhaul of the province’s labour laws.
But outside of labour circles, the tragedy would become a mostly forgotten part of Toronto’s history.
In 2000, COSTI Immigrant Services commissioned the creation of a quilt entitled Breaking Ground by artist Laurie Swim to mark the 40th anniversary of the deaths. Mayor Mel Lastman declared Hogg’s Hollow Memorial Disaster Day. And the city erected a plaque near the site of the catastrophe. But it wouldn’t be for another decade until the quilt would find a home in the mezzanine of the York Mills subway station.
While most Canadians associate Italian immigration with the cuisine and culture brought by the newcomers, for many Italians the Canadian dream was wrapped in exploitation. In fact, public backlash to massive immigration in the 50s would soon see tighter rules brought in by the 60s so that immigration from Italy would almost entirely stop. By the 1970s and early 1980s, more Italians were returning to Italy than arriving on Canada’s shores.
Enzo was born in Belgium and emigrated with his family to Canada in the heat of Trudeaumania. He is a winner of numerous writing awards and the only (alleged) Commie banned from entering Cuba. It’s complicated. Claims to fame: champion wood-chopper.