First published in The Age on February 16, 1937
THIRTEEN ENTOMBED IN WONTHAGGI MINE
DISASTER FOLLOWS EXPLOSION
DEBRIS BLOCKS SHAFT
Rescue workers at Wonthaggi mine’s infamous no.20 shaft after the explosion.Credit:Carl Kitchen
Heroic Work of Rescue Parties
Deadly Fumes Encountered
Body of One Victim Recovered
It is feared that 13 lives have been lost in No. 20 shaft of the State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi following a terrific explosion, which caused the worst coal mine disaster in the history of Victoria. Because of the deadly nature of the carbon monoxide fumes encountered in the shaft, hope that any of the men will be found alive is remote. Late last night the rescue parties recovered the body of one of the men who had been entombed.
Heartrending scenes were witnessed at the pit mouth, where women stood all day long hoping that the tragic reports of the rescue parties would prove unfounded, while several hundreds of men who had left home in the morning to attend a strike meeting crowded around the mine shaft begging to be allowed to make the hazardous descent in search of their entombed companions.
Miners in Wonthaggi mine’s no.20 shaft before the explosion.Credit:Carl Kitchen
The victims of the disaster were all Englishmen except William Ridley, and all were oversmen, deputies or special tradesmen, who were not involved in the strike that has kept the mine idle for the past week.
Practically all hope for their safety was shattered during the afternoon when the general manager (Mr J McLeish) and a small party obtained entrance to the drive in which the explosion had taken place and found it badly fouled by carbon monoxide.
The shock of the disaster paralysed all business activities in the town of Wonthaggi, and many of the shops and offices closed as soon as the tragic news became known. Tonight a meeting of the municipal council and the picture show were cancelled and there is a silent pilgrimage from the township to the mine.
CAGE BLOWN INTO AIR
Miners Rush to Pit Head
For the past week the employees of the State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi had been on strike, and this morning the mine manager (Mr A Gidney) and Mr H Rilan, a deputy, accompanied by 13 deputies, who were not affected by the strike went down to No. 20 shaft to make certain repairs. The party reached the bottom of the 700 feet shaft.
Shortly before 10 am Gidney and Rilan returned to the surface to arrange for the oiling of a cage rope. A few minutes later they heard a terrific explosion, and a cloud of coal dust and gas roared up from the mouth of the shaft.
So fierce was the concussion that it was felt a mile away, and all the shutters fell at the Dalyston post office switchboard two miles and a half away.
At the same time the three-ton cage, which was stationary ten feet below the surface, was blown up against the poppet head, about 50 feet above the ground, and the roof of the adjoining house was blown off.
Prompt Rescue Efforts
The alarm was given immediately and the miners, who were about to hold a meeting in the town hall, made all speed to the mine to volunteer for rescue work.
In the forefront of all operations was the general manager (Mr John McLeish), who was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s medal for his gallant rescue work in a previous mine disaster. Under his direction ambulance and rescue parties were organised, and then Mr McLeish, accompanied by Mr T Johnston (underground manager) and Messrs. Ron Spier and Ted Fairless, went below to try to ascertain the extent of the disaster.
In addition to safety lamps they took eight canaries, which are highly susceptible to the deadly carbon monoxide and would display early symptoms of the presence of fumes. Mr McLeish’s party reached the bottom of the shaft, only to discover that the cage skids had been blown out and the mouth of the drive blocked with debris.
Three bells sounded in the engine room, and almost as one voice came the murmur of “hold her” from the crowd assembled around the pit mouth. Then the cage reappeared, and Mr McLeish consulted with his technical staff. The empty cage was then dropped to the bottom with a view of flattening the debris and forcing an opening into the drive, and Messrs. Johnston, W. Moore and Fairless made another descent at 11.25 am.
A few minutes later Moore returned to the surface, and after he had reported to Mr McLeish, it was decided to cut the bottom out of the cage, so that the rescuers might crawl through and climb down a ladder into the drive. This was done, and the rescuers entered the actual scene of the tragedy.
Foul Air Kills Canaries
Volunteers were plentiful, for the men who had been on strike were crowding round the pit mouth to offer their services, and the management’s embarrassment was not to find men but to hold back the crowds of men who clamored to go to the aid of their comrades.
From the time the drive was first entered, Mr McLeish was rarely out of the mine and as evening approached his face showed only too clearly the physical and mental stress he was suffering.
Accompanied by a rescue party, Mr McLeish descended and entered the drive, but they had walked only about 40 yards when their canaries died, and this, with the presence of dozens of dead rats and mice, told the worst.
Crowd Hear Gloomy News
The news was conveyed to the surface, and the gloomy news spread rapidly that there could be no living thing in that deadly atmosphere.
A few heartbroken listeners moved away to vent their grief in private, but the miners only pressed more closely around the rescue station and pit mouth, all pleading for the chance to face the dangers below ground and render what service might be left to be rendered to their comrades.
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