The ever-present dangers of underground coal mining were brought sharply into focus by a disaster which happened 60 years ago today.
It happened at the Springhill coalfield, a series of deep mines in Cumberland County in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Mines had been established there since the mid-19th century, and the men who worked them were no stranger to disaster.
In 1891 an accumulation of coal dust in a connecting tunnel between two shafts ignited, the resulting fire sweeping through both shafts. It killed 125 miners and injured dozens more, some as young as 10 years old. New safety measures helped prevent a recurrence, but in 1956 there was another explosion.
Ironically, it happened when fine coal dust was being taken away from the coalface as a safety measure. As the train approached the surface, a sudden blast of ventilation air disturbed the fine powder, which filled the air. Several cars broke loose from the train, ran back down the track and derailed, causing a spark which ignited the coal dust. Because it was near the surface, additional oxygen from the outside air made it a huge blast. Despite heroic rescue efforts, 39 miners died and many more were injured.
The community was still recovering when, just short of two years later, disaster struck again. This time the cause was not an accident, but an environmental occurrence – a type of underground ‘earth shift’ known by the miners as a ‘bump’. It would be wrong to call it a ‘natural cause’, as it was brought on by the mining operation destabilising the surrounding ground. The 1958 ‘Springhill Bump’ would be the biggest in North American mining history.
At that time, No. 2 colliery at Springhill was one of the deepest coal mines in the world, with sloping shafts stretching almost three miles to a labyrinth of ‘galleries’ (coal faces) more than 4,000 feet underground. On October 23rd, workers on the evening shift experienced a small ‘bump’ around 7pm, but as these were fairly commonplace it was ignored.
If they had taken it as a warning to evacuate the mine, scores of lives would have been saved. Instead they worked on until, just over an hour later at 8-06pm, a second and massive bump struck, severely impacting several of the coalfaces being mined. It spread as three distinct shockwaves, causing a series of collapses like dominoes toppling. It was so big that it was heard and felt on the surface, where rescue teams were quickly assembled.
Some of the rescuers were equipped with breathing apparatus, but most went barefaced into the mine despite the danger of deadly gases. The leading rescuers came across the first survivors about two-and-a-half miles down the sloping shaft, walking or limping to the surface, some carrying injured comrades. As they approached the collapsed coalfaces, rescuers encountered increasing levels of escaped gas, forcing some to turn back.
Debris was everywhere and some shafts were completely blocked. Many of those working directly at the coal faces were crushed as ceilings collapsed on them, but others working in side galleries or other parts were trapped. Frantic efforts were launched to dig them out and by 4am the following day, 75 survivors made it to the surface.
Despite secondary rockfalls and constant danger, rescue teams worked around the clock, including some of the men who survived the original blast and returned to search for their missing workmates. Rescue teams also arrived from other mines in Cumberland County.
On October 30th, a full week after the ‘bump’, rescuers found a group of 12 trapped survivors, having tunnelled through a 160ft deep rockfall to reach them. Two days later, on November 1st, another small group of survivors was found, but they would be the last. After that, it was only bodies which the rescuers brought out.
The rescue operation became the first major event of its type to feature in live television broadcasts from the scene, making its famous around the western world. Among many dignitaries to visit the site was Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who had been attending meetings in the Canadian capital, Ottawa. As well as speaking with survivors, he consoled those still waiting for news of loved ones.
Of the 174 miners working in No. 2 colliery when the bump struck, 75 were killed and 99 made it out alive. Some would never venture underground again. The rescuers were collectively awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Canadian Humane Association for their bravery, while the town of Springhill was granted the Carnegie Medal for Heroism in recognition of its response to the disaster.
In subsequent years, several poems and folk songs were written and recorded chronicling the Springhill disaster. The town never fully recovered and today the mine works, now owned by the government of Nova Scotia, are flooded with water as a source of geothermal heating.