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1886 Lithgow Valley Colliery

Case Study

In February and April 1886 at Lithgow Valley Colliery, NSW, two accidents killed eight men, leaving five women without husbands and 15 children and young people without fathers.

14 February 1886

On Sunday, 14 February 1886, four men went to investigate reports that the mine was on fire. They went down the tunnel and were overpowered by smoke in the main heading and retreated some distance. Affected by the smoke, one of the men left the mine and returned home, leaving the three others. At this time no apparent danger was anticipated.

The next morning, a small group of men on the first shift were confronted with a wall of smoke and could not proceed very far down the tunnel. Realising that the three men were still in the mine, the alarm was raised.

The first rescuers were beaten back by foul air but eventually the dead bodies of two of the men were discovered. The other man, the manager, was found unconscious a few yards from the roadway. He was taken to the surface but passed away the next day.

The Royal Commission found that the fire arose at the underground boiler which supplied steam to a water pump. There had been a history of fires occurring around the boiler which were caused by the accumulation of small coal. The Commission found that the probable cause of the fire was the indifferent disregard by the management for underground safety and was critical of the manager as he had disregarded the danger and took no steps to remove the cause of the fires.

The Commission found that the three men died from inhaling carbonic acid gas while in the wastes of the mine on the right-hand side of the tunnel. In the Commission’s opinion it was probable that their oil failed, they lost their way in the darkness, wandered for hours in the waste workings full of gas and laid down and died.

This incident claimed the lives of 3 people: John Doig (33), William Rowe (56) and Charles Younger (42).

19 April 1886

Many miners were anxious for the mine to re-open so that they could return to work. On Monday, 19 April 1886, four volunteer parties, of 10 men each, worked six-hour shifts attempting to subdue the fire by applying high-pressure steam to it, erecting brattice, clearing debris and using their coats to beat back the flames. This failed and the fire increased in intensity as it was fed by the entry of oxygen into the tunnel.

Some of the men stopped work, retreated a short distance to a cool place and sat down for their crib (their mid-shift meal). According to one of the survivors, they heard a thunder-like roar approaching them appearing to crush down on them. The men seized hold of each other and someone called out “We’ll die together!” The force of the wind knocked them off their feet, bursting the brick stoppings and brattice and extinguishing their lights. The bodies of five victims were recovered in close proximity about 400 metres from the tunnel mouth.

The Commission concluded that the second accident was caused by a wind blast resulting from a fall of top-coal, or of the overlying rock, of unknown extent, and in an unascertained locality of the old workings in the north of the tunnel. It forced a mixture of foul and exhausted air, smoke and carbonic acid gas, or carbonic oxide gas, to fill the wastes, continue through the stoppings and finally enter the tunnel.

The Commission found that the five men were killed by the inhalation of carbonic acid gases, not the wind blast, and that it was a pure accident that could not have been foreseen and was unpreventable.

This incident claimed the lives of 5 people: Lancelot Allison (36), Joseph Buzza (45), Isaiah Hyde (29), Thomas H. Mantle (29), and Thomas Rowe (27).

Fire and ground or strata failure are principal hazards under current Regulations

Mine and petroleum site operators must prepare a principal hazard management plan which provides for the management of all aspects of risk control in relation to the principal hazard of fire (refer clause 24, Work Health and Safety (Mines and Petroleum Sites) Regulation 2014).