A month of mining tragedy


July has a cluster of sad anniversaries for coal miners, with disasters leading to substantial loss of life at Mt Kembla, Box Flat, Appin, Moura and South Bulli. We will never forget those who have lost their lives in industrial disasters and the lessons from each event as we keep fighting to improve safety.

MT KEMBLA – 31/7/1902 – 96 killed by explosion

31 July is the anniversary of Australia’s worst industrial disaster, in 1902, when 96 miners lost their lives in an explosion at Mt Kembla Colliery in NSW.

There were 280 workers underground at the time of the explosion, including young boys. The explosion was so massive it could be heard 11 kilometres away in Wollongong. Recovery of the bodies took several days, and all but one were recovered in a courageous rescue operation. The NSW Parliament suspended sittings, such was the shock felt in the broader population.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry followed. The mine owners attempted to establish a theory that the disaster had been caused by a “fall of ground” and not by the presence of dangerous gas levels. However, the evidence refuted that theory. Not only was gas present in dangerous quantities but the mine managers were aware of that fact.

Recommendations from the inquiry included more testing for gas, better ventilation, improved shot firing practices and the abolition of naked flame lights. It was not until 1925 that the ventilation system at Mt Kembla was replaced, and it was years before naked lights were finally banned.

BOX FLAT – 31/7/72 – 17 killed by explosion

On 31 July 1972, a fire followed by an explosion at Box Flat in the Ipswich area of Queensland killed 17 mineworkers and severely injured three others.

At about 6pm on Sunday 30 July 1972, signs were detected of a fire underground. A team went underground to check it. A second team went into the mine some hours later to try to make temporary seals. It was then that a tremendous explosion shattered the mine.

Of the seventeen men who were killed, seven of them were members of the rescue squad that had been called to the mine when the fire was detected.

In the face of the danger of further explosions arising from the raging fire, the grim decision was made to seal the mine, leaving fourteen of the victims entombed.

A funeral service was held at the top of the mine.

National leaders of the then Miners Federation (Evan Phillips and Bob Cram) issued a statement, reflecting that “the coal mining industry has been subject to revolutionary technological changes, and regulations have followed behind these changes. The task is to ensure that there are no long gaps between these technological changes and the necessary legislation to safeguard the men.”

APPIN – 24/7/79 – 14 killed by explosion

24 July 1979 brought a mine disaster to Appin on the NSW South Coast. An underground explosion, three kilometres from the pithead and 600 metres underground, killed 14 mineworkers. Ten of those died while having their mid-shift meal in the crib room. Some of the survivors made it to the surface but were severely burned.

The judicial inquiry that followed was led by Judge AJ Goran. He found serious communication problems at Appin, which was known to be a gassy mine. He found that the Mines Department had allowed a tolerance of a “continual breach of statutory requirements relating to gas”. He consequently made a number of recommendations relating to gas safeguards, including monitoring and warning devices and ventilation. He also recommended the appointment of more local check inspectors.

MOURA NO. 4 – 16/7/1986 – 12 killed by explosion

On 16 July 1986 an explosion deep underground took the lives of 12 coal mineworkers.

On that day there had been 19 men working underground when the explosion claimed 12 lives in an instant. The seven survivors were able to help each other to the surface through clouds of dust and gas.

Recovery plans for the victims were postponed due to the dangerous prevailing conditions, where high gas levels and near zero visibility were encountered. The rescue team was eventually allowed to resume their heartbreaking task, to recover the victims – workmates, neighbours, comrades.

It left the community of Moura in shock. For the survivors it is a memory that does not fade. Bill Allison, who was a Check Inspector at the time, said at at the 30 year anniversary commemoration:

None of us will forget that morning of the 16th July 1986, it is forever etched in our minds. The friends and family we lost, that day. How could this happen?

Twenty men went down the mine that day, just an ordinary working day, nothing was happening that day to be concerned about. They said goodbye to their loved ones and went to work, just like any other day. Only eight returned.

We will never know for certain what happened that day, we know how that methane gas was distributed through the workings, but we will never know for certain the ignition source or the events that happened, just before the explosion occurred…

It was only as a result of the heroic efforts of the Mines rescue teams that we were able to recover the bodies and establish what happened. It meant the families at least had a place where they could go to grieve, they knew what happened to them. Thanks to the Mines Rescue teams.

Watch survivors of Moura No. 4 talk about their experience of the disaster –  from the film Blood on the Coal

24/7/91 – SOUTH BULLI – 3 killed by asphyxiation

On 24 July 1991, three mineworkers were asphyxiated by gas released during an outburst of deadly gas at the working face at South Bulli coal mine.
The outburst occurred shortly after restarting the cutting of coal after the miner had been stopped for the routine installation of roof supports.
Although dangerous gases had been detected on numerous occasions as this panel had progressed, no gas had been detected on the shift that the outburst occurred nor for at least the previous six shifts. When previously detected it had been effectively handled as a ventilation problem, not as a precursor to an outburst.
South Bulli Colliery was not classified as an outburst prone mine with outburst mining procedures only being introduced when an outburst potential was detected.
The investigation report identified that an outburst management plan had been developed, however, it had not been properly implemented and the quality of the mine’s outburst plan was poor.
In response, new guidelines on outburst management were implemented, and legislation to require a hazard management plan to be in place.

IMPROVEMENTS TO SAFETY ARISING FROM THESE DISASTERS

Often, arising from a major disaster there have been improvements to safety practices and legislative changes.

  • Box Flat: Introduction of self-rescuers, stronger regulation about fire fighting equipment placed underground, upgrading of mine manager qualifications, improved stone dust legislation, introduction of gas chromatographs on surface.
  • Moura No. 4: Banning of flame safety lamps, ban of use of aluminium alloys underground, continuous gas monitoring, compulsory safety induction training.
  • Mt Kembla: compulsory use of safety lamps, improved ventilation.
  • Appin: extended gas monitoring introduced, appointment of officers to supervise ventilation, more detailed reporting by deputies.
  • South Bulli: stricter requirements for managing gas outbursts in underground coal mines.

Back to issue: July 2019