The Kaitangata Mine explosion took place near Balclutha, in Otago, on 21 February 1879. Thirty-four miners died, suffocated by a belt of 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.
Coal was first discovered at Kaitangata, just east of Balclutha, in 1844, but a mine was not opened until the 1850s when the gold rushes brought more people to the area. Once a railway was built, the mined coal could be transported to other places.
On 21 February, 1879, sometime between 8 and 9:00 am, an explosion shook the coal mine.
The pit where the explosion took place had been opened for only two years, but there were plans to increase the amount of coal being mined. Extra miners had started work just the day before the disaster. On the day of the explosion, 47 men were employed at the mine, but at first no one knew how many of them were underground at the time of the explosion.
A train was sent to Balclutha to bring help. In the meantime rescuers tried to enter the mine, but were stopped by debris and the presence of fire damp. Fire damp is a miners’ 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. By noon rescue parties were able to enter the mine and begin bringing out the bodies of the dead miners. By 6:00 pm it was known that no one had survived the explosion.
How many died?
34 people died.
Other events and outcomes
It became obvious from the unmarked state of the bodies that the miners had not been killed by the explosion, but had been suffocated by a belt of black damp before they could reach safety. The coroner’s report found that there were faults in the management of the mine, particularly with the ventilation system and the lack of safety lamps.
It appeared that the manager’s brother had been carrying a candle when he entered a disused part of the mine. Fire damp had accumulated there and when the gas came into contact with the naked flame it exploded.
The Kaitangata Relief Fund was set in place to help the families of miners who had died in the Kaitangata explosion, and others who had suffered death or injury in mines around New Zealand.
More information and sources
- New Zealand’s heritage, Vol. 3. Wellington, [1971-73]
- Search our catalogue for information about the Kaitangata Mine disaster.
- Kaitangata Mine explosion at NZHistory
- The Kaitangata coal mine explosion, West Coast Times, 24 February 1879 via Papers Past