The tragic news from the Pike River mine has put me in mind of another mining disaster on the West Coast. In 1896 sixty-five workers were killed at the Brunner mine after a methane-gas explosion. It was New Zealand’s worst industrial accident.
On the morning of 26th March, 1896, an explosion ripped through the mine. The first two men who went in to investigate were overcome by ‘black damp’ (the miners term for a deadly mixture of nitrogen and carbon monoxide). They were found unconscious due to the lack of oxygen.
Many of the rescuers who followed were also overcome by the black damp. Men’s lungs were permanently damaged, and some could never work again.
The explosion had been caused by ‘fire-damp’, the mostly methane gas formed as decaying plant matter becomes coal. Miners believed that the gas had accumulated because of insufficient ventilation, although an Inquiry cleared the mining company of any negligence. You can read more about what happened on Te Ara, and see a photo of it on Te Papa’s Collections Online.
Sixty-five bodies were recovered from the Brunner mine. The West Coast community was devastated – as they are today.
I learnt about the Brunner Mine disaster when I travelled to the West Coast, under the auspices of National Services Te Paerangi, to facilitate a concept development workshop with Shantytown living history museum.
I was privileged to be given a tour of the Brunner Mine site by my wonderful host, Jackie Gurden. When I stood amongst the mist and read the list of names inscribed on the memorial, I felt the great sadness of that loss.
This week, those memories have come back to me. Our thoughts are with you all on the West Coast. Aroha nui.