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Charles Valentini remembers the water-main tunnel as it began filling with smoke from burning rubber cables.

He could hear a rumble of water as construction workers above him poured water on the blaze. He had only seconds to find five men trapped between the cables and a cement wall, but in the chaos and terror, Mr. Valentini barely escaped with his own life. The five men all suffocated.

It was March 17, 1960, and Mr. Valentini was the foreman on the Hogg's Hollow site where a water main was being constructed 10 metres below ground to serve the new suburb of North York.

"I remember from beginning to end how I saved my life 40 years ago," said Mr. Valentini, now 77.

Although in the days and months after the disaster Mr. Valentini's rescue efforts were forgotten, the city and several unions hope to commemorate them and the tragedy this Friday on the 40th anniversary of the accident.

Mayor Mel Lastman has declared tomorrow Hogg's Hollow Memorial Day.

That night, Mr. Valentini had been getting ready to send construction material down to his workers when a fire erupted in the tunnel, which had a 90-centimetre pipe running through it. Climbing down into the air compressor unit, he found his friend Pasquale Allegrezza barely alive. The tunnel was quickly filling up with water.

"I tried to get this friend of mine. I dragged him almost to the end of the shaft. But I fell down," Mr. Valentini recalled. He set Mr. Allegrezza down and tried to climb out of the tunnel by the air compressor to get more help but in the chaos and confusion kept falling down. Somebody above threw down a leather rope.

He could still see the four, trapped between smouldering cables on one side and a concrete wall on the other. Rescue workers then shut down the air compressor that forced air into the tunnel, causing the tunnel to cave in. As water flowed to quell the fire, it mixed with concrete, turning it into quicksand.

"I started climbing and screaming. As soon as my head was above ground, a thousand pairs of hands reached out for me," he said.

Mr. Allegrezza, Gian Battista Correglio, Giovanni Fusillo, Allessandro Mantella and his brother Guido all died.

After the disaster, Mr. Valentini never went back into a tunnel again. He quit his job and became a welder for a Toronto machinery company.

The Construction Trades Council and Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario are calling on the province and the city to find a home for a quilt commemorating the event and to place a plaque at Old York Mills Road and Yonge Street, where the deaths occurred. The quilt, two metres by six metres and made mostly out of silk, depicts the men in the tunnel. It was created by Toronto artist Laurie Swim.

"We think back to the lives that were wasted because of poor safety legislation and lack of enforcement of laws that existed. . . . They were forced to work in conditions that no human should be exposed to," Gerry Boyle, president of the construction trades union, said at a press conference yesterday.

A massive public outcry led the Progressive Conservative premier of the day, Leslie Frost, to call for a royal commission the following year.

That and a damning coroner's inquest led to several changes to the province's labour laws, including requirements that construction workers wear hard hats and boots and have proper training for rescue equipment. None of the men in the tunnel were trained properly or were wearing safety hats or boots.

Today Ontario enjoys one of the lowest construction accident rates in North America because of those changes, John Cartwright, business manager of the Construction Trades Council, said.

City Councillor Joe Mihevc said a plaque is important because it is "an important symbol for us Torontonians so we can remember the past and don't make mistakes in the future." He is optimistic a permanent place will be found for the quilt.