The Brunner Mine disaster in Brunnerton on the West Coast on 26 March 1896 was the worst mining disaster in New Zealand’s history. A total of 65 miners died in the disaster, almost half of the Brunner underground work force.
The explorer Thomas Brunner had discovered a seam of good quality coal on the banks of the Grey River in July 1847 during his 1846-48 exploration of the area. The first load of coal left the West Coast in July 1864 by ship, but it was not until a railway to Greymouth had been built in 1876 that the Brunner coal fields really began to grow. Major harbour works at Greymouth in the 1880s also helped the shipping of coal to other parts of New Zealand.
At about 9:30am on the morning of 26 March, 1896, a sound like artillery fire was heard, and smoke was seen coming out of the pithead. The area of the Brunner Mine in 1896 was over 230 acres. There was no damage to the buildings at the entrance to the mine because the explosion was so deep into the mine.
A crowd gathered while the manager and the underground engineer went down to check what had happened. When they did not return, miners from other shifts followed them, only to find the two men unconscious from black damp. The rescue party moved further into the diggings. Groups of rescuers came from Blackball, Greymouth, Westport, and other parts of the Coast as news of the disaster spread.
From 11:00am they began bringing out the bodies of the dead miners. But even as they worked, the rescuers were affected by the gas in the air and the lack of ventilation, and could only work in short shifts. Many were brought out unconscious. This misled the onlookers into thinking that some of the original miners were being brought out alive.
As groups moved deeper into the mine they found signs of a huge explosion. The railway line and trucks were twisted and smashed, and some of the bodies recovered were so badly mutilated that they had to be identified by their clothing. By 2:00pm the next day, 64 bodies had been brought out of the mine. It could be seen that those away from the point of explosion had been trying to escape and had been suffocated by the black damp. Black damp is the miners’ name for a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. If there is not enough oxygen in the air, miners can suffocate. It took a further three days to locate the last body. A total of 65 miners died in the disaster, almost half of the Brunner underground work force.
How many died?
65 miners died.
Other events and outcomes
53 of the dead miners were buried on 29 March at Stillwater Cemetery, 33 in the one grave. It was estimated that the funeral procession, which stretched for half a mile, was made up of approximately 6,000 people.
Richard Seddon was then the Premier of New Zealand, and represented the people of the West Coast in Parliament. He had been visiting Hokitika at the time of the disaster and quickly made his way to Brunnerton where he was able to give promises of government support for the rescue effort.
A disaster relief fund for the miners’ families was launched the day after the explosion, and money was given from all parts of New Zealand. Altogether more than £32,000 was raised for the fund.
A commission of inquiry found that the management of the mine could not be blamed, and that the explosion had been the result of human error. A charge had been placed the wrong way around, in a part of the mine where there should have been no one working.
Experienced miners believed that fire damp had accumulated and not been cleared properly by the ventilation system, and a series of explosions had been the result. Fire damp is the miner's name for a gas of mostly methane which forms as decaying plant matter turns into coal. It becomes explosive when mixed with a certain amount of air. As a result of the explosion, the ventilation system in the deeper parts of the mine was destroyed. More exit shafts would not necessarily have saved more lives.
An obelisk, or stone memorial, was erected to the miners at Stillwater Cemetery and dedicated in 1900. In 1996 a statue of a late nineteenth century miner was placed at the entrance to the Brunner Mine.
The Brunner Mine disaster was the worst mining disaster in New Zealand’s history.
More information and sources
- New Zealand’s heritage, Vol. 4., Wellington, [1971-73].
- Disaster at Brunner, Brian Wood, Greymouth, 1998.
- Search our catalogue for information about the Brunner Mine Disaster.
- Terrible explosion in Brunner mine, West Coast Times, 27 March 1896 via Papers Past
- Brunner mine explosion at Te Ara