Strongman Mine explosion

On 19 January, 1967, there was an explosion in the Strongman Mine, near Greymouth, on the West Coast. 19 people were killed.

What happened?

The state-owned Strongman Mine lies 11 kilometres north-east of Greymouth, and was New Zealand’s largest underground coal mine. It had been open since 1939, and had an accident-free record.

On 19 January, 1967, just after 10am, an explosion blew through the section of the mine known as Green’s No. 2 Rise. In seconds the fireball from the explosion fired through the section, killing 19 of the 240 men who were working in the mine at the time.

An even bigger disaster was averted when just 140 metres from the point of explosion the fireball struck a wet patch in the tunnel where water was seeping through the walls. The fireball slowed, then went out, and in seconds the danger had passed.

Within four minutes other teams of miners had reached the tunnel leading to Green’s section, but were driven back by poisonous gas and smoke.

Evacuation begins

A full evacuation of the mine was ordered, and by 10:20am the police and medical teams had arrived. The rescue team, equipped with breathing packs, worked for 14 hours finding the bodies of the dead miners and bringing them to the surface on rail trucks. Often they had to dig their way through falls of coal and rock. Fire damp reached dangerous levels at times, increasing the risk of another explosion. Fire damp is the 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.

The first bodies were brought to the surface at about 1pm. Thirteen hours later the rescue work was held up while the air cleared, and by then 15 bodies had been found.

After a delay of five hours the rescue work resumed, but when the smouldering coal burst into flames, the section where the remaining four bodies were was sealed off.

Three weeks later two more bodies were brought out, but the last two could not be reached, and were permanently sealed off.

A mass funeral was held on January 22 at the Karoro Lawn Cemetery in Greymouth.

How many died?

19 people died.

Other events and outcomes

Five of the rescue party were awarded British Empire Medal for their efforts.

The report of the Commission of Inquiry stated that two of the Mining Regulations had been broken. A shot hole for a charge had been fired in a way which was against the regulations, and had broken through the face to an area where fire damp had built up in some abandoned workings, triggering the explosion. The abandoned workings should have been checked for gas.

Because the Strongman Mine was State-owned, the Government of the time had to pay out between £200,000 and £250,000 in compensation.

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