Loved ones of 116 Scottish miners trapped underground held their breath as a desperate and dramatic attempt was made to rescue them.
They had already heard the good news that the trapped men had made contact using a phone system and were safe, although another 13 who were separated from the main group were still unaccounted for.
The men had been working at Knockshinnoch Castle Colliery in Ayrshire when their main access route was suddenly flooded with a liquefied sludge of peat and moss, blocking their way out. The sludge had come from a previously unknown glaciated lake between the mine and the surface, the sudden inrush happening around 7-30pm on Thursday September 7th. It also caused a huge crater – or 'sink hole' – to appear in a field above the pit, measuring 300 feet across and 50 feet deep.
As news of the disaster broke, relatives and friends rushed to the pit seeking information and fearing the worst. Luckily most of the men underground were working away from the collapse, although it sealed them underground. One of them, Andrew Houston, was the colliery 'oversman' (superintendent). He quickly took charge below ground, leading the men to a safer part of the pit where he knew they could contact the surface via the telephone system.
Once it was known where the men were located, rescue teams decided the best way to reach them was through an older disused mine. Although abandoned some 60 years earlier, its tunnels could get the rescuers close, with just 30 feet of coal and rock to dig through to reach the trapped men. The rescue team, made up of hundreds of volunteer miners plus firefighters and trained rescuers, worked day and night to first shore up the dangerous disused mine before starting to tunnel through to the trapped men.
They had to use powerful fans to disperse a gas called "firedamp" from the old mine. Although not poisonous it was flammable and also reduced the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, making it difficult to breathe. The lead rescuers were encumbered by heavy breathing apparatus due to the gas. The trapped miners were also told they could dig from their side, but to do so gently as breaking through suddenly could cause a sudden influx of the firedamp gas, with no breathing apparatus to protect them.
The digging was also laborious work, as the presence of the flammable gas meant only hand tools could be used. Frantic work was also going on above ground, where an army of volunteers filled the crater with haystacks, trees and anything else they could find in an effort to stabilise it and prevent further collapse.
Finally the rescuers broke through to the trapped men, with food and drink sent down to them and a siren sounding on the surface to let relatives know they were safe. But the rescue was far from over, as the way out was barely wide enough in places for one man to crawl through. Many of the trapped men were weak from their ordeal, but faced a dangerous three mile route to the surface.
Almost 90 sets of breathing apparatus had been collected from every fire station and mine in the region and were used in relay by the rescuers and the trapped miners, who were brought out three at a time. The first man was brought safely out at about 3-45pm on Saturday, almost 44 hours since the collapse, with the last of the 116 miners not emerging until the early hours of Monday September 11th.
David McArdle, area manager for the National Coal Board, described the rescue operation as the greatest in the history of Scottish mining. Sadly the remaining 13 men could not be located and it was several months later that their bodies were finally recovered.
During their time trapped underground the miners had remained in remarkably good spirits, singing and even doing comedy turns to help the long hours pass. Oversman Andrew Houston was later awarded the George Medal for his role in leading the trapped men, but played down his role, saying: " As for being the hero the press made out, I was just doing the job I was entitled to do. If you had picked 116 men specially to undergo that ordeal you'd not have done better than pick the men who were there."
Two years later the story of the disaster was retold in a feature film, "The Brave Don't Cry", starring John Gregson and featuring a young Fulton Mackay, best known for his role as Prison Officer Mackay, nemesis of Ronnie Barker's character Fletcher in the prison-based sitcom "Porridge".