Home' Greymouth Star : January 21st 2017 Contents Saturday AAfternoon
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6 - Saturday, January 21, 2017
Coming off day shift 1965 — Jack Bourke, Kenneth (Bricky) Moore and Lew (Lewis) Smithson.
A rare colour photograph from around 1960 taken underground in the Slant Dip section of a typical cribbo. Note the safety lamp
hanging on the fresh water tank, the ambulance box, and the paper littering the floor that was used for making up the dummies
for shot firing. From left: Roy Ennor, Johnny Walker and Doug Howell.
Watching developments. Strongman employees. From left: Reg Bannan, Pete Wafer, Fred Key, Hongi O’Connell, Morrie Power, Jeff Messenger, and Tom Muncaster.
Waiting for news from those underground, mine employees outside the portal.
Green’s No 2 at the Strongman Mine was not the most
desirable section to work in given its challenging
The 3.5ha section was generally low with the seam being
about 1.8m thick and in some places it was lower as the coal
thinned out towards the eastern fault. The working area as
of January 19, 1967, was getting progressively smaller as
extraction had been going on there for roughly a year.
Though there was essentially level ground across the
section for trucking purposes, it was a particularly steep
section to work, with an average gradient of one in three that
dipped towards the south-west.
In an era when miners were paid on what they produced
there were many easier places in Strongman to earn your keep
and using considerably less physical effort in doing so. What
governed what ended up in your pay packet was simple: the
more coal you produced, the more you were paid.
In 1941, to meet the government’s wartime demand for
coal production, a dispensation applicable only to Strongman
was drawn up by mine officials and management. This group
knew Strongman’s product was second to none and the more of
it that was won, the better it was for the economy. Shipping, rail
and industry could not get enough of it.
This 1941 agreement effectively sped up the way coal was
won at Strongman.
Some parts of Strongman did have ‘harder coal’ that
required more effort, but this was overstated to a certain
degree. With the harder coal issue, the mine did not have to
follow the letter of the law for certain matters in extracting
coal and, besides, in many areas of the mine Strongman would
never have been a profitable proposition if it always had to
adhere to the rules.
This 1941 arrangement worked well, though. It was never
envisaged that it would be permanent, however over time the
dispensation became the norm.
The amazing thing with this was that a disaster did not
occur perhaps sooner than it did, given the gassy nature of the
ground. All three seams worked at Strongman were classed
as being gassy, and none more so than C-seam; Green’s No 2
section was within that.
Over time, new staff were never to learn or know any
other way of doing things other than what they had been
shown. Many newcomers knew no other way than what the
1941 agreement permitted.
For miners who drew Green’s No 2 in the cavil as their
place to win the coal it would have brought sighs from some
who, perhaps, had far easier places previously.
Some sections within Strongman were more of a pain
than others, and Green’s was one of them. For example, roof
conditions were not the best so this required more attention.
Even getting to Green’s involved quite a bit of travel after
entering the mine. Once off the main drive, it was firstly down
Scott’s Dip and then up from the foot of that steeply, to gain
access to the working area of the section.
For communication purposes there was a telephone at
the foot of Scott’s Dip, about 400m from the section. This line
linked the caller to the winchman at John Burns winch, which
was about another 120m away. That phone connected to the
When the mine exploded at 10.04am on January 19,
1967, many employees working underground felt a prolonged
movement of air above the normal current. It was stronger in
some areas, but some were not even aware that something had
happened, given the extent of the workings, until they got the
word to leave the mine.
Other than those working at John Burns winch, close
to Green’s, there was no blast noise as such underground so
there was no indication from that that something was amiss.
However, those closer to Green’s were immediately enveloped
by dense clouds of dust and smoke and they realised it was
from no fall of ground.
Mine underviewer Dick ‘Darkie’ Thomas was the first
to have a look along Scott’s Dip and in towards Green’s No 2.
However, he soon retreated owing to the foul air, smoke, fallen
timber and overturned coal trucks. He immediately telephoned
outside that there had been an explosion.
What compounded the initial ignition of gas behind
O’Donnell’s place when the shot was fired was the explosion
instantly became an even more devastating one as it triggered
a coal dust explosion with a powerful flame front barrelling
throughout the entire section. Incredibly, coal dust explosions
can travel up to 1000m a second, making them far more
damaging than a gas explosion.
Two miners were not caught by this rapid fireball racing
through the section, but their realisation that something
serious had happened was all too brief.
They immediately took off from their smoko place but
after only a dozen or so metres they were overcome by the
after-gases as they endeavoured to escape.
The compulsory use of self-rescuers was not mandatory
back then and without them they had no show of making it out
Then, as now, there is no fear of any gas explosion
whatsoever if a mine’s ventilation system is up to scratch.
An inefficient one is literally a ticking bomb, and the
ventilation of Green’s No 2 was certainly not what it should
As has happened many times with coalmining throughout
the world, the smallest miscalculation or casualness with
a ventilation system often results in lethal consequences.
Since time immemorial, the last mistake with ventilation in a
coalmine is often the worst one. Politicians, mine management
and employees have had replays of those particular lessons
countless times, yet avoidable tragedies continue simply
because the almighty dollar undermines man’s ability to use his
Changes were brought in and mining law updated as
a result of the Strongman explosion of 1967, but within a
relatively short time production had dropped off markedly as a
result of adhering to the rules every other mine had to follow.
This, as feared all those years before, threatened the viability of
The 1971 Coal Mines Act that replaced the outdated 1925
legislation essentially came about as a result of the Strongman
Bureaucracy’s accommodating flexibility with the rules
had cost a generation badly once, and once was enough.
Thankfully there was to be no repeat of 1967. A lot more care
and attention was to the fore in Strongman’s declining years of
production and mining afterwards became safer due to new
methods of extraction.
The failure to remember the lesson of 1967, though, would
replay in a new century and the impact was just as shocking for
a new generation.
In 1967 no party was really held to account. Collectively,
many knew the risks and what was going on, but the lure of big
money diverted attention to detail and tragedy followed.
Minister of Mines at the time, Tom Shand, when asked
the question on accountability, said he “wouldn’t know where
to start” in bringing about any court action. Everyone knew
the risks but State Coal bore the greatest responsibility. It was
slammed in the report looking into the disaster.
The report stated the negligence of the New Zealand State
Coal Mines Department was held to be a real and substantial
cause of the explosion “with the degree of responsibility resting
“Compromise can be the seed
of a catastrophe”
heaviest on the officials charged with the statutory powers
and responsibilities — the manager, acting manager, the
underviewers of Green’s No 2 Section, and the deputy shotfirers
in that section”.
There was one matter in particular that supported that
finding — the round of shots that caused the 1967 disaster did
not comply even with the 1941 dispensation or agreement yet
the prepared face was fired when it should not have been. By
then it had become accepted practice.
Once World War Two ended the need for the agreement
was reviewed, and that exercise took place behind closed
doors in 1948. Those attending were State Coal management,
deputies, the union and the inspectorate of the time. Curiously,
Strongman’s management were not even party to the discussion
that resulted in the revised agreement.
With the economy expanding rapidly post-war, many
were calling out for more coal and with Strongman being
the best around, the arrangement was simply confirmed and
it continued with little attention given to the part lady luck
played in the previous seven years the mine operated under the
At least one mining official was worried. The then chief
inspector of mines Reg Schoen had raised the issue formally.
Arguably, his concerns brought about the review.
Schoen was concerned about the way things were and put
it in writing to the Under-Secretary of Mines Cecil Benny on
June 10, 1948. Earlier in the year on January 30, Schoen had
issued a memorandum to department management that stated
practices permitted at Strongman care of the “very ill-advised
‘agreement’ can only lead to disaster”.
But between 1941 and 1948 all went well with no incidents
— so Wellington officials took the view there was no obvious
reason to seriously reverse the 1941 rules other than tinkering
with them. Schoen warned Wellington, in writing, but officials
within State Coal played down and sidestepped the issue to
ensure that more coal was produced. The Crown demanded it.
Schon’s dire warning was proven correct and his
prediction of disaster came to pass ... be it some 20 years after
he flagged it.
As the National Association of Underviewers and
Deputies president Robert Scott stated to the Strongman
inquiry: “Catastrophe can eventuate because of production
demands on the part of managers, money on the part of
the miners, or simple laziness on the part of deputies and
His view was spot on.
As has often happened in the past with mining, a
compromise can be the seed of a catastrophe. And so it was,
The introduction of hydro mining during the early 1970s
injected a production extension for the old Strongman.
More extra time was added to Strongman’s long life when
hydraulic monitor extraction was successfully trialled for its
successor Strongman 2 further up the Nine Mile Valley, and
Strongman closed on October 31, 1994.
People never tire of the sight of the jagged, brooding hills north of Rapahoe. But
the peace and beauty of the scene betrays a sad history. Here, in the folds of the
deep green Nine Mile Valley, 19 good men lost their lives, when an explosion
tore through a gassy part of the Strongman State coalmine at 10.04am on
Thursday, January 19, 1967. Many would have been just tucking into their
mid-morning crib when their world ended in a fireball in the pitch black of a
mine pit deep underground. As the survivors, families, workmates and rescuers
gather this weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this sorrowing
chapter in West Coast history, Strongman author PETER EWEN revisits what
happened, why and who was to blame.
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