KAITANGATA MINE DISASTER
Any coal mine administration which permits men to wander round its deep corridors with naked lights would seem clearly to be heading for catastrophe. There must have been many in the township of Kaitangata, near Balclutha, who expressed this view before February 1879. The men were loud in their grumblings about the deputy-manager, a somewhat eccentric fellow who was given to "poking about in all parts of the workings, night and day, with a naked light". They complained to the manager, but he shrugged his shoulders and admitted he "couldn't make the old fellow keep out". No one lost very much sleep over it, however, because it was believed that New Zealand mines were not susceptible to explosions like those overseas. Many of the miners, in fact, carried candles in the front of their hats!
There came a rude awakening on February 21, 1879. At 9 a.m. a thunderous report startled the little township nestling at the foot of the hills, sending vibrations through the hundred or so miners' houses. A mass of debris shot skywards over the Kaitangata Railway and Coal Company's colliery, in a blind gully about half a mile from a bend of the Molyneux River. A boy was just entering the mine with a horse when boy and animal were blown 50 yards away and killed. A house To yards away from the mouth of the mine was hurled of its foundations and partly wrecked. A man emptying trucks near by was whirled through the air by the blast and thrust underneath a shed, where he became jammed but escaped injury.
If such things could happen on the surface, what was the fate of the 30 men below in the coal seams? Rescuers determined to end out. The stationmaster dispatched a special train to Balclutha to get medical assistance and wives and children crowded round the pit mouth anxious for news of husbands and fathers. The searchers worked desperately, but quickly became exhausted. More men arrived from the Green Island and Watlin Park collieries to help, but the gas and foul air retarded the search. Shortly after noon the first body was brought to the surface, then came three more - all found no more than 200 yards from the pit entrance.
The Dunedin newspapers printed extra editions. The tension mounted but the magnitude of the calamity was still not realized. "None dreamed that such an accident at one of our mines was possible," said the Dunedin Age. "The absence of explosions hitherto had induced the belief that our mines were altogether different from the old deep pits of the Mother Country."
They were no different. Fire damp, the miners' name for carburetted hydrogen, which is explosive when mixed in a certain proportion with air, is the same in mines the world over.
The searchers struggled farther into the workings. By nine o'clock that night 28 bodies had been recovered and four more had been seen under the wreckage. There were pitiful cries at the pinhead as each body was lifted out into the open. It was soon clear that 25 widows and 100 orphaned children would be left destitute.
The search for the bodies went on throughout the next day. No bodies were found at the point where the men had been working and most of them were in a spot where no explosion had occurred. This, together with the fact that most bodies were not blackened or mutilated, suggested that an explosion of fire damp had occurred and the coal cutters had had time to flee, but were caught in a belt of black damp (carbonic acid gas) and suffocated. A few of the corpses had clearly suffered from the blast. Some of those killed had arrived from the North Island and begun work in the mine only the day before. As generally happens, there was the man who slept in that morning-and saved his life.
Thirty-five perished in this grim death chamber. There were no survivors. The eccentric deputy-manager died with his companions. The whole affair provoked trenchant criticism in the Press. The Lyttelton Times went so far as to say that this man "probably carried his flaring light into disused workings and in the act destroyed the township". The evidence at the inquiry certainly suggested that one of the men had gone into the old workings with a naked light - and triggered the explosion, for these old workings were virtual reservoirs of inflammable gas. The miners told of small explosions earlier in the tunnels and the presence of dreaded gases. The system of ventilation was shown to be quite inadequate.
"Every precaution which ought to have been taken in the mine seems to have been neglected," commented the New Zealand Herald. "Anyone could go into the old workings with a naked light. The ventilation was defective."
The Lyttelton Times, after reviewing all the evidence at the inquiry, took the mine owners severely to task. It pointed out that there was no chairman of directors, and the manager, "though confessedly unskilled" was responsible to nobody.
An "incompetent manager'' had been "carrying out a system known to many to be bad and dangerous". He had made light of the fire damp known to be in the mine, even when one man was seriously burned some time before. There were strong demands throughout the country for the tightening of the law concerning conditions in the mines.
Meetings and entertainments in many parts of New Zealand helped to swell the relief fund for families left in need. The leading poet of the day, Thomas BRACKEN, wrote an "In Memoriam" for the victims, which was recited at their funerals.
New Zealand mourned an awful tragedy - but learned many lessons from it.
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