On Thursday 31 July, the 112th anniversary of Australia’s worst industrial disaster, the Mt Kembla community will gather to honour those who were lost – and those who survived. Here, Paul Treanor, who runs a website on the Mt Kembla mine disaster, looks at why the  tragedy occurred and how it continues to be remembered. 

There was a degree of optimism in the mining hamlets of Mt. Kembla as they awoke on 31 July 1902, however by the afternoon that optimism would turn to fear and dread.

Mt. Kembla is one of the two mountains that stand guard over the city of Wollongong on the South Coast of New South Wales. During the late 1800s a number of coal mines were established to tap into the rich coal seam that runs along the Illawarra mountain range. One was at Mt. Kembla, which was said to be one of the safest, if not the safest, in the colony as it was supposedly gas free.

The optimism was due to the reconvening of a hearing before the Arbitration Court in Wollongong. The miners and their families were hopeful that, with any sense of fairness, they would see an increase in the rate paid for their back-breaking work. The world depression of the 1890s, the second worst in history, had seen the amount paid to the miners, called the hewing rate, reduced to a level that was below what was needed to support their families.

Also on the agenda of the day’s hearing was the introduction of safety lamps, so called because they were an enclosed flame therefore preventing the accidental ignition of methane gas that naturally comes off the coal seam. Both sides were opposed to the introduction of these lamps.

The company opposed the introduction on the grounds of cost and reduced production. The men were not keen because the lamp did not give as good a light as the naked flame of the coffee pot lamps that they attached to their heads. Also if the light went out it could not be relit at the coal face which meant a long walk of several miles back to the surface thus reducing what they could earn that shift; besides, the mine was gas free so why did they need safety lamps?

It is common practice in underground coal mines for large worked out areas, called goafs, to be left unsupported and the roof allowed to eventually fall. Just after 2pm on this fateful day a large section of the unsupported roof in a 35 acre goaf came crashing down 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 tunnel and suddenly came in contact with a naked 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 it took everything in its path.

This initial explosion set off a series of explosions hurtling off in multiple directions throughout the mine giving the unsuspecting miners no warning and no chance to escape. The explosion produced odourless carbon monoxide gas and it silently 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 – some as young as 14 – would be killed, including two rescuers who succumbed to the gas during their frantic search of the mine for survivors. It is still Australia’s deadliest industrial disaster and until the Victorian bushfires in 2009 it was the largest loss of life on Australian soil from a single event.

Wreckage after the Mt Kembla mine disaster. Courtesy University of Wollongong Archives.

Wreckage after the Mt Kembla mine disaster. Courtesy University of Wollongong Archives.

News of the explosion travelled fast, but surprisingly miners in some sections of the mine were unaware anything had happened. Those living close by not only heard it but also felt the shock waves vibrating through the earth shaking the foundations of their homes.

A telephone call to Wollongong soon passed the message onto the combatants in the court that something dreadful had happened at Mt Kembla. Rushing out they could all see the large black menacing cloud mushrooming about the mine. They headed off towards Mt Kembla dreading what they might find.

Two local doctors were summoned along with the matron from the Wollongong Hospital. They also quickly headed to the mine. Upon hearing the news a group of women, who had some 15 years earlier lost loved ones at the Bulli mine explosion, walked the 15 miles to Mt Kembla to provide help and support.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, the chairman of the Mt Kembla Coal Mining Company, Ebenezer Vickery, was in the New South Wales Parliament when word came through an explosion had occurred at his mine and many were feared dead. It was reported that he said he only had the men’s safety at heart.

Yet his actions said otherwise. Vickery, remembered as a philanthropist and staunch Methodist, showed his other side in relation to the disaster. He never visited Mt Kembla after the explosion nor contributed to the welfare of the widows and orphans.

A portrait of Ebenezer Vickery taken in Crown Studios, Sydney. Courtesy University of Wollongong Archives.

Ebenezer Vickery, Chairman of the Mt Kembla Coal Mining Company, showed little concern for the victims. Courtesy University of Wollongong Archives.

Those who arrived at the mine entrance were horrified with what they saw. The force of the explosion as it exited the mine not only brought down the tunnel’s roof but destroyed most of the buildings supporting the mine operation situated near its entrance.

The first instinct was to rush into the mine and rescue those trapped. With such a close-knit community many of those in danger were related. Men ran to where the safety lamps were kept only to find most did not work. Had more lamps worked it was believed more lives would have been saved.