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Great Disasters in Australian History
By Jonathan King
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Jonathan King
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Mount Kembla, New South Wales, 31 July 1902
AUSTRALIA 'S WORST MINE DISASTER KILLS 96
The Mount Kembla mine was absolutely without danger from gas ... in fact gas had never been known to exist in the mine before ... it was one of the best ventilated mines in the state.
William Rogers, mine manager, quoted in Illawarra Mercury, 1902
'Come on, Jimmy, she's goin up — let's get out of here!' Adam Stafford, a miner working deep down the Mount Kembla colliery, yelled to his mate as he saw 'a big cloud of white smoke coming up the tunnel with a red streak in the centre of it'.
And without wasting a second they both ran for it.
'You see, I reckoned the mine had exploded', Stafford, who had worked in the mine for three years, told an inquest later,
so me and Jimmy McDill both started to run from this hot, white cloud, then we got knocked down by some force and fell. But we got up — our legs aching — and ran. Then Jimmy's light went out, but he told me to go straight on. I did and did not look back. Because I was in the dark, as my light had gone out, I made my way along the tunnel by feeling the side. Then I got right out of the mine into the daylight. It wasn't till next day I heard the gas had got Jimmy.
Mount Kembla, near the beachfront industrial city of Wollongong, was the fifth largest mine operating in New South Wales. A sprawling maze of different tunnels at different depths, it was so big that some miners had worried that the furnace-driven ventilators meant to keep the tunnels clear of gas may not prove to be effective enough.
It was 2 p.m., just after the lunch break on Thursday, 31 July 1902, when the mine inside Mount Kembla exploded as part of the disused coal face (known as the goaf) collapsed and sent a rush of air charged with methane gas back along the closest tunnel.
Within seconds, this deadly methane-rich air hit the naked flames of a lamp carried by an unsuspecting miner and exploded, igniting the coal dust stirred up by the collapse. This initial explosion blew up wooden structures in this previously worked area, bringing down the ceilings. As it collapsed, the mix of air, methane gas and coal dust was sent rushing along the mine passages, sparking a series of explosions that hurtled along the various tunnels, sending smoke and ash roaring like a killer wave through the heavily manned mine.
If they weren't already maimed by the falling debris or knocked near unconscious by the force of the blasts, the 261 men and boys working in the mine (along with 30 horses) had to escape this enormous underground labyrinth before the lethal gas killed them. It wasn't easy. The mine sprawled over 300 hectares. It was so vast and spread-out, with so many tunnels, that the miners did not know where the deadly gas would spread. Ironically, the mine management boasted a state-of-the-art furnace-powered ventilation system designed to keep the air circulating below ground, but it only spread the poisonous gas into other areas. So the eventual destination of the deadly fumes became quite random.
Conditions down in the exploded mine were horrible, like a scene from the Italian classic Dante's Inferno. The bodies of miners overcome by gas lay on the tunnel floor in the darkness where they had dropped; the survivors staggered about in the pitch black, tripping over their dead mates; some stripped off their shoes and clothes, believing this would help them cope with the gas; others groped along the walls, feeling their way towards the exit, walking or crawling; some stronger miners tried to drag unconscious mates towards the exit and fresh air; some couldn't hear, deafened by the blasts. Others were burned, their skin raw and peeling-hot — while all the time different overseers and miners kept shouting contradictory instructions. It was chaos.
Their hand-held lights blown out by the wind, the miners did their best, drawing on memory of the layout to escape through the darkened labyrinth, but it was so difficult to breathe in the methane-impregnated poisonous gas cloud drifting through the tunnels. Many became confused, disorientated and unable to escape.
The first thing long-time miner Adam Frost knew about the explosion was when a great blast of wind blew his light out, leaving him in the darkness, below ground in the belly of the mine. He was an overseer of wheelers, and he knew the key thing was not to panic. He also knew his time was limited: everybody knew the deadliest danger down any mine was a gas explosion. And he wanted to save as many mates as he could. So he calmly waited for signs to guide his escape — which would be one of the first successful escapes of the day, giving hope to others.
He was at a position in the tunnels known as the '2nd right tommy-dodd' in the '1st right' when he felt the wind come up the '2nd right'. So he set off in the direction of the main haulage. He had moved less than 200 metres when he met a wall of smoke, dust and hot air. Frost thought the air was travelling its proper course and so returned to the tommy-dodd, where he met a number of men, whom he led out of the mine.
Having succeeded with his first escape and rescue mission, Frost headed down towards the main entrance of the mine and to the 'shaft district'. He helped several men, but noted that quite a few were affected by gas. He found his brother Matthew, and together they rescued the unconscious miners from 'No. 6 right'. It was now 8 p.m. Then he returned to help as many men as he could or to remove the limp bodies.
When Matthew Frost told David Evans about the explosion, his deputy manager began the major rescue operation of the disaster, saving many lives and becoming a hero. With decades of experience, including sixteen years at Mount Kembla, Evans knew his way around below ground. He made his way towards No. 1, where he found smoke coming out. He then went towards the air shaft and opened separation doors to short circuit the smoke to the upcast shaft and so prevent it from circulating around the workings. He gathered about 90 men, and led 70 of them to safety. He guided them through old long wall workings, often on their hands and knees, until after three hours of crawling they reached the travelling road near the manager's house, saved by a small current of fresh air circulating around the old long wall. Sadly, some twenty men who were originally with the party decided to make their own way out to the surface. They were overcome by the gas and didn't make it.
On reaching the surface, Evans rejoined a rescue party, led by Dr Robertson, heading back into the mine. They didn't return to the surface until close to 2 a.m. the next day. He went in again on the Friday, but this time they knew it was merely a recovery mission. Matthew Frost would later tell the authorities just how much the survivors owed to Evans. His coolness did much to calm the men found by the rescue party stumbling around the darkened tunnels.
Frost didn't notice the smell until about fifteen minutes after the explosion, when the smoke hit, and it was hot. Frost stayed on for about 40 minutes while Evans led the first party of survivors away. Evans had instructed him to stop men from passing that point, gather them up and then to follow in a group. But some in Frost's party refused and, as they argued over the best plan of escape, many were overcome by gas. Frost tried to drag some of them towards the fresh air, but it was futile, so he stayed until the first rescue party, led by his brother Adam, reached them. Once out, Matthew Frost joined another rescue party. Meanwhile, a young wheeler had unhitched his pony from the skip, and it led him and two miners out into the open and to safety.
The force of the explosion wasn't only felt underground. John Clark, a pit-top foreman, was struck by a rushing wall of hot, smoky wind, seemingly from out of nowhere. It picked him up off the ground and hurled him and the skip he had been wheeling 30 metres. It was only when he struggled to his feet and saw the debris falling to the ground around the mine entrance that he realised the mighty mine must have exploded. Paddy Brownlee and William Wilson were working in the weigh-cabin 25 metres from the mine entrance. They were both thrown to the floor and badly burned.
They felt the shock, too, at nearby Kembla village, the company township where 200 mine employees and their families lived. It sounded like thousands of pounds of dynamite had been set off. The ground trembled violently; houses, windows, doors and furniture shook, crockery rattling as if to fall. Men and women were almost thrown off their feet. According to one eyewitness, there was a large train of smoke, followed by an eerie silence. Roosters crowed and dogs howled. The silence was quickly shattered as those who realised what must have happened, particularly the families of those working down the mine, rushed to the site.
The blast was heard in Wollongong — 6 kilometres away — and telephone calls quickly informed the town of the disaster. At the courthouse, they adjourned proceedings. The serene coastal coal city was soon deserted as every available means of transport was commandeered. When the rescuers and frantic relatives reached the mine, they reeled back in horror at the devastation confronting them. The buildings, including office, engine house and boiler house, had been smashed into an unrecognisable mass. The entrance to the main tunnel was blocked by fallen earth and stone.
Nine weeks earlier, having worked at the mine for fifteen years, John Morrison had been promoted to night deputy in No. 1 right. Off duty when the mine exploded, he rushed from town with his housemate, William McMurray. They were among the first to enter and were able to help Matthew Frost rescue the men in No. 6. Stopping only to take an hour's break at about 8 p.m., Morrison rescued miners till three o'clock in the morning.
An old retired miner, William Stafford, who lived just above the main tunnels, was working in his garden when he heard a loud noise and, on looking up, saw a great red tongue of flame he said was 40 feet (12 metres) long, with pieces of iron and torn wood flying through the air. He would not soon forget that shocking noise. Harry Ramsay, a farmer, was right above the old furnace when he, too, saw a snaky red flame and a cloud of black smoke and dust shoot out of No. 1 old furnace shaft.
Donald Brisbane miraculously escaped in the party led by David Evans through the tunnel near the mine manager's residence. Later, when he went back into the mine to check on his horse, all he found was one of its legs. He took the leg home and removed the hoof, still with the steel shoe attached, and eventually turned it into a pin cushion. Donald passed away in 1935. (The pin cushion was donated to the Illawarra Historical Society Museum in 1976.)
Local Aboriginal legend claimed Mount Kembla and neighbouring Mount Keira were spiritual sisters and guardians of the land who should never be disturbed, while the Five Islands off shore were the daughters of the friendly wind that cooled the coastline — but it was the wind inside the mine that proved so deadly to the men who dared to disturb these sleeping sisters. In 1770, Captain James Cook had also noted the mountain while exploring the east coast of Australia, recording it as 'a round hill', like a hat.
Mount Kembla is in fact part of big range joined to the west by the Illawarra escarpment and, in particular, a mass with two lower summits, Kembla West (512 metres) and Mount Burelli (531 metres). The mountain forms a prominent peak pointing approximately eastwards. The Mount Kembla area was settled in 1817 — just three decades after the first British fleet established the town of Sydney. The pioneer settler was George Molle, who became an agricultural and pastoral businessman successfully producing beef, wool and apples.
And then coal was found inside this mountain. The Mount Kembla Colliery was established in 1883, and the company built a township to house about 200 employees, as well as helping to connect a new railway to Sydney and build new wharves to transport the black gold.
IT WAS A GREAT DISASTER because it was the worst peacetime industrial accident in Australia's history, with 96 miners, men and boys, killed. There was also the loss of nineteen pit horses. Although ten horses were found alive two days later, a further eighteen were still entombed. Incredibly, a week later, on 9 August, the missing horse, 'Nelson', was brought out terrified and very confused.
For a long time it was Australia's worst single disaster on land (the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria surpassed it in 2009, with a death toll of 173). Not that anyone pretended mining wasn't a dangerous business, and public sentiment at the time was that profit-driven operators cared little for the safety of their workers. Mine explosions had claimed the lives of an incredible 546 men in unsafe mines in the twenty years before the 1902 Mount Kembla disaster. At Bulli Colliery, also in the Illawarra, 81 miners were killed in 1887. An explosion at the Dudley Colliery in the New South Wales Hunter Valley killed another fifteen miners soon after. Further back in time, in Britain, 178 men and boys died in the Welsh Cymmer (Old) Pit in 1856, another 204 in the Hartley Colliery in 1862.
Worse, Mount Kembla could have been prevented. The owners and managers ignored the miners' constant warnings about leaking gas in the mine. So insistent were they that the mine was gas- free that managers even refused to keep a log book recording any suspected leaks. They put their faith in 'modern technology', including the faulty furnace-driven ventilators meant to keep the tunnels clear of gas. In particular, they refused to replace the miners' old lamps, with their dangerous naked flames that could ignite any leaking gases, with modern safety lights, known as Davy lamps.
The official report found the miners 'died from carbon monoxide poisoning produced by an explosion of fire damp ignited by naked lights in use in the mine and accelerated by a series of coal dust explosions starting at a point in or about No. 1 level back heading and extending in a westerly direction'. Mount Kembla Mine, the report concluded, was both gassy and dusty.
It was Australia's worst mine disaster, but it could have been a lot worse if some of the more capable men had not saved their colleagues. This did not happen in the next big mine disaster, at Mount Mulligan in 1921, in which the explosion overwhelmed all miners working underground.
In 1903, it wasn't uncommon for politicians in Australia to hold stakes in the coal industry or even to own coalmines. For critics, it was a given that the government-appointed royal commission that investigated the disaster at Mount Kembla over three months that year would be a whitewash.
The commission did confirm the theory, accepted by the earlier coroner's inquiry, that the disaster was caused by a lethal mix of gas and coal dust. And while the authorities accepted that miners' naked lights ignited the escaping gas, rather than holding any individual official of the Mount Kembla Company responsible the commission merely noted that only the substitution of safety lamps for flame lights could have saved the lives of the 96 victims.
Neither the coroner's inquest nor the royal commission made any judgement of the company or its owners and managers, other than mine manager William Rogers, who had his certificate suspended for a year and was eventually re-employed as a manager at the Mount Kembla Colliery.
The men were back down the mine within two months, and flame lights continued to be used up to World War II, causing many more mine explosions and deaths. Just nineteen years later, in similar circumstances, an explosion would kill 75 miners at Mount Mulligan in far north Queensland.
Excerpted from Great Disasters in Australian History by Jonathan King. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan King. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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