The explosion at the Pike River mine near Greymouth is a sad reminder that underground coal mining will always be highly dangerous work. Wherever there is coal there is also likely to be methane, or firedamp as miners call it. Methane is given off by coal and is highly combustible.
- Kaitangata in south Otago, 1879, when 34 miners died from an explosion.
- Brunner on the West Coast, 1896, when 65 were killed from choking gas. This was the largest death toll from any New Zealand industrial accident.
- Ralph’s mine, Huntly, 1913, when a firedamp explosion killed 43.
- Dobson mine on the West Coast, 1926, when an explosion killed 9.
- Glen Afton mine, Huntly, 1939, when 11 were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide.
- Strongman mine, also on the coast, 1967, when 19 died following an explosion.
Yet, although the scale of these accidents is horrifying, our entry reminds us that in fact many miners, perhaps more in total, have died through individual accidents than in the mass tragedies. From 1900 to 1914, 98 individual miners lost their lives. We also include a list of individual mining deaths at Denniston north of Westport. It shows that in the 25 years from 1881 to 1906, 26 people died from mining – more than one a year. Some were killed by falls of rock or coal; others lost their lives on the famous incline, hit by runaway trucks or in the case of Charles Ribey, by ‘a moment of absent-mindedness’. Only one lost his life from an explosion of the type which caused the mass explosions.
With danger of accident and death ever-present, the coal mines spawned a tight and protective community, which the present tragedy has again highlighted.
At this time all our sympathies are with the families and friends of the 29 miners at Pike River.