Home' Greymouth Star : January 14th 2017 Contents Saturday Afternoon
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West Coast history is littered with mass mining disasters — from Brunner
in 1896 with the loss of 65 lives to Pike River in 2010 and another 29
lives wasted. In between times there was another catastrophic explosion,
Strongman, that took 19 men with it and left yet another generation of
West Coasters without fathers. It happened 50 years ago next week, yet is
still a raw memory for many of those affected. As Greymouth and Runanga
prepare to mark the passing of five decades since that disaster, reporter
PAUL McBRIDE caught up with five surviving members of the Mines
Rescue teams — Harry Bell, Terry Crowley, Johnny Cox, Wayne Fitzmaurice
and Yorkie Middleton — who are still haunted by their grim task of
retrieving the bodies straight after the gas explosion on January 19, 1967.
Harry Bell led the second rescue team underground and he says
the memory still weighs heavily on his mind.
Harry had worked at Strongman, in the Nine Mile Valley,
as dog watch deputy in 1965 before moving to the Liverpool No
3 at Rewanui to work as an underviewer on the backshift. He
was at home at the time of the explosion.
“I was around at my dad’s fixing some dripping taps, as
I was on the backshift. Phyllis Johnson lived nearby and she
rushed in saying something has happened out at the Strongman
Mine. Eric Holm, my mine manager at Rewanui, got hold of me
soon after getting a ring to get the Mines Rescue team out to
the Strongman Mine as quickly as possible.”
Miners in the rescue team from Rewanui were coming
down on the rail to the Dunollie Station, where Harry was
waiting in his Ford V8 sedan ready to transport them out to
“Roy Hiha was in charge of the station and asked me what
was going on and I said, ‘I think there has been an explosion at
the Strongman’. I noticed Don Banks, the Strongman day watch
deputy, sitting on the steps of his home across from the station.
I left the keys in my car for the others and I jumped into
Don’s vehicle and out we went. We had to go through a police
roadblock on the way.
“Archie Auld knew I had worked at the Strongman and
knew where to go, so I led the second rescue team. Archie,
Ronnie Gibb and Dick Thomas had already been into the Green
No 2 section and certified there were no survivors — they saw
what they thought were all the bodies.
“We could walk 2km into the mine without oxygen masks
as the exterior fan was blowing fresh air into the mine. Priority
was setting up a fresh air base at the jig and replacing the
stopping, which had been blown out. The air was coming in
and going straight out — it was short-circuiting. We quickly
had the stopping in place with the brattice, moving the fresh air
up to the fresh air base and circulating.”
The Mines Rescue team entered the Green No 2 section all
wearing Protosorb breathing equipment, which had a two-hour
“The Protosorb filters the carbon dioxide out of our breath
and the oxygen left from the expelled air is replenished with
more oxygen from the oxygen bottle, and as they ran out we’d
grab another bottle from the fresh air base.”
On entering Green’s section the rescuers were immediately
confronted by the graphic evidence of a large explosion.
“All the mine tubs were piled up against each other. You
got to realise immediately the extent of the damage and the
conditions in the section. It was hot and humid — the heat was
intense — black dust and wood thrown everywhere. While
making access, three bodies were found and initially we got
five of the bodies from the right-hand section. First we got Hec
McKenzie, Jimmy Watson and George Kinsey out, and then
Russell Cust and Hughie O’Donnell. We carried their bodies by
stretcher to the fresh air base.
“It was tough, I knew them all. Russell Cust lived just up
the road from me — he was just 20 years old. We didn’t have
goggles on in those days and my eyes were stinging from the
heat, dust and humidity. We eventually got 15 of the bodies out
by midnight, and everyone was exhausted. We were all worn
out so it was decided to leave the search for the remaining
bodies and return at 7 the next morning. It was well after
midnight when we decided to head home.”
When the rescue team arrived back at the mine the next
morning Harry says they soon realised a fire was burning in the
mine, in the Green No 2 section.
“There was the smell of smoke which started coming
out — a fire was burning down there. We had no hesitation
in sealing the section for three weeks. When the fire was out
we went back in and found two more bodies, but whereas the
remaining two bodies may have been visible at the first fall,
conditions had changed. During the three weeks the mine
was sealed the roof had collapsed again not far from where
we brought out Johnny Trukawka’s body. There was timber
and props everywhere and our rescue team hunted for the
remaining two — the sad thing was we left Bricky Moore and
Dudley Robinson behind.
“On looking back, the Buller and Reefton rescue teams
were on standby and not asked to come down. If they had been
there I think we would have got all the bodies out — we were
just worn out, but if they had been there too we could have
worked through instead of deciding to come back the next day.”
The 17 bodies which were eventually recovered were
carried out on stretchers from the fresh air base by the fresh
air rescuers, who walked 2km out to the entrance of the mine
and to the compressor shed, which was used as a temporary
“While the Mines Rescue were in the Green section the
Strongman workers who stayed back to assist from the fresh air
base were a marvellous help and did an amazing job.”
Terry Crowley was at home in Cobden and was set to work in
the Strongman Mine Green No 2 section on the afternoon shift
when word of the explosion first surfaced.
“My wife was shopping in Greymouth and I was looking
after our six-month-old daughter when the phone went to get
out to the Strongman, quick. I passed my daughter over to the
neighbours and flagged down Wally Hales in his taxi and he
drove me out to the mine. I had been rostered to work that
afternoon in the section and take over from my cross mates,
Peter Mountford and Johnny Trukawka.
“The adrenalin was pumping as I went to the bath house
and got changed. The Mines Rescue van was there and guys
were milling around waiting while I went and grabbed a rescue
set. I went into the mine and some others came in with me to
the start of the Green section. Up to that point there was fresh
air and some of the miners who had been underground in
other sections of the mine were there staying to help.
“Archie Auld asked Ronnie Gibb and I to put the
breathing on and go through and check the ventilation seals
were intact. We found one was damaged very close to where
the fresh air base was being set up. We fixed the seal from
outside and then the rescue guys were divided into teams
and the teams then went into the different areas of the Green
section. We were all kitted up and each team had a leader who
was familiar with that particular area.
“The atmosphere was totally irrespirable — one mouthful
of air would kill you, with the carbon monoxide and noxious
“When we first went in there was a damp area. Greens is
an inclined area but when you first go in, the ground is level. It
was a mess, full boxes, empty boxes, timber strewn everywhere
a hell of a mess. The area I was assigned to work was up the
“It was so hot in there, humid and uncomfortable with no
ventilation. It was like that all day. We could see the bodies of
the men — the injuries were horrific.”
Despite the horrors, the adrenalin and Mines Rescue
training took over as they began recovering the bodies of their
“At the time we didn’t worry, while we were in there we
were running on sheer adrenalin. In hindsight you wonder
about it going up again but you did what you were trained to
do. It was when I got home later that it hit me, and 50 years on
I still look back.
“The blast had come down all the different roadings
and all met at the entrance area of Greens. In other areas, the
offshoots from the roads, there wasn’t as much damage but
there was one large rockfall.”
Once the mine entrance to the Greens No 2 section was
sealed off after the fire, he and the rescue teams returned 30
days later and went back to search for the remaining bodies.
“We got two more bodies out and some of the rescuers
had metal rods, poking and prodding looking for the
remaining bodies. Our rescue teams couldn’t have done any
more. I believe Bricky Moore and Dudley Robinson’s bodies
were beneath the large rockfall and there was a lot of sadness
leaving those men behind.
“I knew all the miners who were killed, knew them very
well — Hector McKenzie lived straight across the road from
“I’ll never forget it — there is always some form of
reminder around Christmas, but January 19 — I never forget
Wayne Fitzmaurice was on the backshift and usually worked
on the main drive at Strongman. He was also at home on the
Thursday morning when he got the word.
“I was to work that afternoon through to the early
evening. We were living in Bright Street in Cobden at the
time. I got the message there had been a blast and I went
straight out to the Strongman. I was 19 years old then. There
was a roadblock at Rapahoe but I went straight through,
being in the Mines Rescue, and got up to the bath house
area. Miners were still coming out of the mine. There were
quite a few men gathered around and getting ready to go
underground. Archie Auld had us all up there, he was the
man and he was calling the shots that day. Archie, Ronnie
Gibb and Dick Thomas had already been down the section to
see if there were any survivors, and we were waiting for the
okay to go in.”
After a quick meeting with managers they put on their
“We walked into the fresh air base, which was already in
place, and went down into the Green section. I was in Ronnie
Gibbs’ team with Norm Adams, Johnny Walker, John Forbes,
Jim Duggan and Alwyn Cowan. We put our plugs in our
mouths and in we went. A lot of damage, straight away you
knew there had been a blast with lots of timber thrown around,
coal tubs piled up, and I remember a lot of dust. We had no
eye protection. There was a lot of heat — it was just so hot, but
once you got into the job you settled into what you were there
for. I kept my eyes on Ronnie (Gibb) for his signals what to do
he was the leader of our team and he made me feel safe.
“I could see there would be no chance of any survivors. It
was teamwork, we all worked as one to get the bodies out. The
first miner I got to was Bing Williams, he was burnt from the
blast but I recognised him all right. Looking at all the damage,
the blast would have killed those in its path, and if the blast
didn’t the gas would have — those guys had no chance.
“We did everything we could, everything we had to and
were trained to do. As we found the men’s bodies we took them
out to the fresh air base and worked all through the day and
late at night, still searching. After the section was sealed we
came back to search for the remaining four bodies, but we had
to leave two behind, which saddens me.
“I was 19 at the time. I joined Mines Rescue because I
thought it would be good — put up seals if there was a fire,
rescue someone — but I never thought (the mine) was going to
“I never spoke much about that day, it got to me now and
again. There was no such thing as counselling then, we were
just trained to do a job.
“Most of the miners in the section would hang their
watches on the cross beam where they were working. I
remember a couple of watches were still hanging there in
perfect condition — all had stopped at the same time, 10.04am.
That’s a vital memory for me, this one particular watch hanging
there. The flat sheet where the boxes were always turned was
ripped, buckled and bent, timber everywhere — and here’s this
watch in perfect condition...
Johnny Cox came down on the train from the
Liverpool Mine as soon as word of the explosion
broke, and together with fellow Mines Rescue
personnel he jumped into Harry Bell’s V8 sedan,
which was waiting at the Dunollie Railway Station.
“A lot of the Strongman men were standing
around when we got out there. I had a brother Harry
working at the Strongman at the time - he was in the
bath house when I arrived. I got kitted out with the
rescue gear and I remember some of the Strongman
workers had already taken gear in.
“At the bottom of the section was the fresh
air base and as we walked in I knew things were
serious, but it didn’t seem to affect you at the time
as it was what you had trained for. We used to train
in areas of the mine and we had been through the
Dobson Mine, opened it up where the explosion had
been and trained in the conditions before sealing it
“We went into the Green section with the
mindset of getting the bodies out. Archie Auld,
Ronnie Gibb and Dick Thomas had already assessed
the situation — it was not a rescue but a recovery.
A lot of the timber was blown down and we had to
clear our way through the timber and the tubs all
built up. It was a real mess and very hot and dusty,
no goggles, and we carried our safety kit on the front
with a strap.
“As we came across the bodies we carried them
out to the jig — the fresh air base not far from the
entrance to the Green section, to the Strongman
workers. They would carry the bodies out and we
would go back into the section and search for more.
In the end we recovered 15 bodies on that first
day. It didn’t get to you at the time but it’s later you
realise what had happened. The bodies affected by
the blast were knocked around pretty bad, black as
anything. The men working on the outside section
had tried to run out but they only ran for 15 yards
but got caught by the gas.”
Johnny got home at 2 o’clock the following
morning and was back out at Strongman at 7am.
“The gases had built up to explosive range and
signs there would be another blast, so we closed it
off and came back three weeks later. We checked the
levels and went back in looking for the remaining
four bodies. The section was all much the same and
we went in with our breathing gear and got two of
the men out. A lot of work was done to try to find
the last two bodies. We searched and searched but
we couldn’t find them. There had been a big fall
around where they had been working and I believe
the last two bodies were under the fall.”
Yorkie Middleton was on the backshift at the Dobson Mine and
was at home at the time of the explosion.
“Three of us in our Mines Rescue team — myself, Bill
Munden and Snowy Cruise — headed straight out to the
Strongman. We all had a briefing outside the entrance and near
the bath house. Archie Auld, who was very experienced, told
us straight what to expect and basically said, ‘if you don’t think
you can hack it, don’t go in’. We got the safety gear and walked
into the fresh air base; we didn’t need to put it on until we were
ready to go into the area where the explosion had occurred.
“I hadn’t been down the Strongman before but the three
of us from Dobson were put in one of the rescue teams.
Everything was knocked around to hell but the focus was to get
in and get out quick. It was smashed in places and so hot — if
hell is any hotter then I don’t want to go there. We were using
oxygen but I have never experienced heat like that burning
heat. It’s hard to put in words the heat.
“You could see what you were doing as the dust had
settled a bit. I remember bringing six of the bodies of the men
out where the explosion was. Some were knocked around
pretty bad and others were not too bad, but it wasn’t good. We
wrapped the bodies in brattice if we could to give them respect,
and carried them out to the fresh air base.”
The magnitude of the disaster did not hit home until
hours later, when he got home.
“You knew there had been a big explosion, a hell of
a mess, but you were that well trained for Mines Rescue it
became second nature at the time.
“If there was a better leader than Archie Auld, I’d eat my
hat — he just gave you confidence. We went back later after the
section had been sealed but a lot of the area had fallen in. We
got two more of the bodies out but we couldn’t find the other
two, and we searched so hard for those two men.
“My wife used to say how I would roar and bellow in my
sleep following the Strongman explosion. I had to work the day
after, out at Dobson on the pumps. I was jumpy when I was
down there but it helped me, I suppose.
“I try to put going down the Strongman behind me - and
it stays that way.”
NEXT WEEK: Coalmining historian and Strongman author Peter Ewen looks at what went wrong at Strongman, and the aftermath.
Proto members preparing gear to head underground following the explosion. Those identified are Peter Gundry (crouching), behind Jack Dyeming and
Norm Pattinson, Norman Adams, and in the background Jack Pinn, with George Walker at right.
Proto team members Jack (Johnny) Cox, George Ewen and John Forbes take a break from efforts underground.
Mines Rescue team members about to head underground — Harry Bell, left, Bill Munden, Wilf Broadman,
Yorkie Middleton and Dobson rescue manager Ron Neilson.
Bringing out the dead.
rescue teams reflect
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