Case Study

On 31 July 1902, an explosion at Mount Kembla Coal Mine took the lives of 96 workers.

The incident happened when a large section of the unsupported roof in a goaf collapsed with considerable force, pushing air and methane gas into the main tunnel. The rush of air and gas stirred up the coal dust clinging to the roof and walls of the mine. The coal dust made contact with an exposed flame light. The gas ignited and, combined with the now airborne coal dust, set off the initial explosion that blew down the main tunnel with such force that it destroyed everything in its path.

This initial explosion set off a series of explosions throughout the mine, giving the miners no warning and no chance to escape. The explosion produced odourless carbon monoxide gas that filled the tunnels, accounting for more loss of life than the explosion itself.

At the time of the explosion, 261 men were in the mine. By the final count, 96 miners – some as young as 14, had been killed, including two rescuers who succumbed to the gas during their attempt to rescue mine workers.

A royal commission concerning the disaster, held from March to May 1903, confirmed the gas and coal-dust theory accepted by the earlier coroner's jury. Rather than holding any individual official of the Mount Kembla Company responsible, the Commission stated that only the substitution of safety lamps for flame lights could have saved the lives of the 96 victims. However, flame lights continued to be used well into the 1940s.

This incident claimed the lives of 96 people.