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1900 Greta Colliery Fire

Case Study

On 5 December 1900, a fire broke out at Greta Colliery, NSW, killing five men. Seven gob[1] fires had previously broken out at the mine but had not resulted in any loss of life.

The night Deputy saw the five men shortly before 5pm and then carried on with his work in other parts of the pit until about 10pm when:

“I heard a loud noise, like the bursting of a pipe, in front of me, and the report, which was like the roar of wind, got louder as I advanced. I went further on and saw clouds of smoke, and pretty thick…..I heard terrible bumping and crackling, and like rolls of thunder in the distance, like something falling. I did not see any flame then. There was a current of air passing along about two feet from the floor. It was fighting against the smoke…. I tried to crawl in among the smoke with my head well to the ground. I repeated this twice but had to retreat on account of the smoke. The smoke was coming from the No. 2 flat on the left hand side. The crackling I took to be wood, the bumping to be coal bursting off the side….”

He notified the Manager who had already received the alarm from the fanman, Woodhouse. At about 10.30pm, Woodhouse noticed a slight mist in the fan-drift which was growing thicker. At 10.50pm, the Manager descended the shaft and got within 50 yards of the fire. He was unable to get any closer due to the smoke.

Volunteers tried to reach the entombed men by travelling the old workings but were driven back by the smoke. A further attempt was made the next morning, but the air was now full of noxious gases. At 2.45pm it was decided to seal the pit down.

Remains of two of the men, Buck and Fuller, were recovered in early 1902. Medical evidence indicated that they had been overcome by smoke and died from suffocation.

The Commissioner found that the mine had breached the Coal Mines Regulation Act and Special Rules,  failing to make a written report of the required inspections (even though  inspections had taken place). However, the Commissioner advised against prosecution as there was no evidence  of substantial wrong-doing.


The Commissioner’s conclusions were that:

  1. The fire was caused by a naked light, and was not the result of spontaneous combustion
  2. The fire developed suddenly
  3. There is not enough evidence to suggestthat it was intentionally lit.
  4. The five men who were entombed died from suffocation.
  5. The Greta Colliery is liable to outbreaks of gob-fires
  6. The conditions are favourable to gob-fires when brassy tops[2] are covered with sandstone from the roof.
  7. The outbreak of gob-fires can be anticipated by careful inspection, and removal of all timber and small coal from the workings.

Fire is a principal hazard under current Regulation

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).

This incident claimed the lives of 5 people: Edwin Buck (54), Walter Fuller (29), John Crowell (34), Frederick Crowell (26) and James Hyslop (18)

[1]Gob is a term applied to that part of the mine from which the coal has been removed and the space more or less filled up with waste. Also, the loose waste in a mine. Also called goaf.

[2]Brassy tops is a term used for ‘pyrites’ which is a brass-yellow mineral with a bright metallic luster. It has a chemical composition of iron sulphide (FeS2) and is the most common sulphide mineral.