Mt Kembla Mine Disaster
“It (Mt. Kembla Mine) was one of the safest in the Colony”.
John Morrison Night Deputy
“She's gone up!!”
The shout could be heard across the mountain as the peaceful hamlets of Mt. Kembla were shattered by a loud explosion. Birds took flight screeching across the cloudless sky in their desperation of getting away from whatever had caused such a noise. It was as if some wild beast deep inside the mountain had been awakened from its slumber and had let out an almighty roar.
In the slab huts and tents occupied by the mining families, women were getting ready for their men and boys to return home from a hard day's labour winning the coal. The tremendous noise of the explosion and the ground moving under their feet would have startled them at first. Then a short period of disbelief, as if time stood still, followed by the sudden realisation that something terrible had happened at the mine and their loved ones were in danger.
Front doors flew open, no time to change into their going out clothes, and looking up they saw a threatening black cloud mushrooming up towards the heavens, covering the bright blue sky and hiding the sun. Running, hearts pounding along the bush track to the mine. No time to lose. Not sure what they would find. Not sure what they could do when they got there. Just had to be there as quickly as possible.
Turning the corner they saw the destruction to the mine entrance and above ground buildings. They suddenly realised that their worst fears now faced them and those still below ground were in mortal danger. Every house on the mountain had some connection to the mine in one way or another and would be impacted by the day's events.
The 31 July 1902 started just like any other winter's day in the village near the Mt Kembla mine, but it was to be a defining day in its history and the history of Australia. It was a cold fine winter’s day without a breath of wind and by all accounts with a blue sky.
Night Deputies, brother-in-laws John Morrison and William McMurray, were in the cabin near the mine entrance after completing their nightly inspection. McMurray was writing up their report when the first men on the front shift began to arrive around 6 o'clock to start their day's work. Men on the back shift would join them two hours later. Morrison and McMurray's night inspection had found nothing to prevent the day's work from going ahead. As men arrived to start their day's work John called out: “All Right” and handed the man his token. Even though the men were supposed to read the report prepared by the night deputies, the calling out of: “All Right” was an accepted way of the miners knowing it was safe to take the token and to go into the mine to start their day's work. Their work was now finished and the brothers-in-law went home to bed.
Around two o’clock in the afternoon both shifts were in the mine along with Mr. Bates a Mine Inspector adding up to 261 men and boys. The front shift were getting ready to finish their day while the back shift was still working their last three hours including the young Wheelers and Clippers (mostly boys) who were moving skips along the tunnels.
It was 3 minutes past 2 o'clock when the mine erupted. The roof in the 35 acre goaf near the 4th Right, that everyone had been expecting to fall, started to come down in large sections. A previous smaller fall allowed gas to accumulate in the cavity it had left in the roof, and that along with any gas liberated by the large fall was forced out of the goaf into the tunnels near the 4th Right. This sudden rush of air and gas stirred up the coal dust that had accumulated in this section of the mine into a huge black gritty cloud.
Unfortunately the young 17 year old son of the night deputy, Henry Morrison, was in the path of this deadly mix of air, gas and coal dust and when it came in contact with his naked light from his coffee pot lamp attached to the front of his head it ignited and set off a terrific explosion with the coal dust particles killing him instantly. The explosion had stirred up the cloud of coal dust shot off in different directions in the mine. One direction it clearly went was down the main tunnel causing untold destruction. The force of the explosion was such that skips full of coal were thrown around like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Their contents tipped out across the floor of the tunnel. Wooden beams were blown out causing the roof to collapse and were flung down the tunnel along with rocks from the falling roof. Telephone cables were wrapped around timbers and skips. While this destruction was occurring in the main tunnel other areas of the mine also felt the effects of the gas and coal dust mixing and several simultaneous explosions occurred throughout various parts of the mine.
Amazingly miners in some areas didn't hear or feel a thing and men were reported to have continued to work unbeknownst to them that something terrible had happened.
The force of the explosion was so great it not only collapsed the mine entrance, it also destroyed plant and machinery as well as several of the buildings on the narrow level area of the escarpment being used to house the various pieces of equipment and for storage. Some of the workers above ground were injured and killed as pieces of wood, rock and metal flew through the air. Some received severe burns from the flames shooting out of the tunnel's mouth. Machinery had been thrown about with great force and the engine house was completely wrecked. Metal and galvanised sheets had been twisted and scattered around the site. The scene was one of complete devastation. One of the only buildings left in tact was the fitters' shop, which would later be used for handling the bodies and became known as the Death House.
Suddenly a great cry went up when 70 men appeared out of the darkness via the Manager’s daylight adit, lifting spirits and raising hope that more would survive. These men owed their lives to an experienced miner from the old country David Evans, who was one of the Day Deputies and had taken the men through some of the old workings to avoid the gas and got them out alive. Sadly about another 20 men had not followed his lead and instead walked down the main tunnel into the gas and their death. A descendant of one of the men in the Evans party has told of the impact of his family. Click here to
In the end 96 men and boys lost their lives. 21 were officially listed as injured leaving 154 to make it to safety most under their own steam. Australia's most deadly industrial accident and until the Victorian Bush Fires in 2009 the biggest loss of life on Australian soil.
Extracted from "The Spirits of Windy Gully" by Paul Treanor.
In 2012 on the 110th Anniversary of the Disaster WIN News presented a five part special series on the disaster called Black Dust. Click on the buttons below to watch each of the five informative episodes on Autralia's most deadly industrial accident.