Pike River mine disaster

The memorial to those who died in the 1896 Brunner mine explosion

The memorial to those who died in the 1896 Brunner mine explosion

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.

Te Ara’s entry on coal and coal mining lists the major losses of life from mining accidents in this country, all but two of them caused by explosions from firedamp. The major disasters were:

  • 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.

5 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by deno || November 24th, 2010

    If this was so dangerous then I was surprised to learn through following this tradegy that the coal seam they were after was only 163 meters from the surface. Why was this a “tunnel” instead of an open cast mine?

  2. Comment made by Kerryn || November 25th, 2010

    The mine is on Department of Conservation land – this may be a relevant factor re the type of mine.

  3. Comment made by Oleg || November 25th, 2010

    There is a memorial website setup for perished miners. Leave your tributes here:

  4. Comment made by Rick || November 30th, 2010

    163 meters is a long way through rock four times harder than concrete. Parts of the mine are up to 700m below the surface. You could never open-cast mine the Brunner or Paparoa coal seams. It was never an option.

  5. Comment made by Rob || December 1st, 2010

    Based on the recent media reports it appears unlikely there will be any recovery from the mine and more likely the mine will be sealed and abandoned. The authorities need to flood the effected portion of the mine with water, let it sit for approx 3 days to allow water to clear then use specilast divers to recover the deceased.

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