Veteran recalls hell of Strongman blast

By Catherine Masters

Jim O'Donnell at the graves of his mates _ many of whom he dragged from Strongman after the explosion in 1967. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jim O'Donnell at the graves of his mates _ many of whom he dragged from Strongman after the explosion in 1967. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Jim O'Donnell, 70, leans against the old coal shovel secured in concrete at the start of the long row of graves belonging to most of those who died in the Strongman mine gas explosion of 1967.

He was working down the mine that day, only 27, and helped drag his dead mates out in a marathon search and rescue effort which started almost immediately.

One of his best mates, Harry Van Looy, 36, is the first headstone in the row at the now-closed Karoro Cemetery in Greymouth and next to him is Hugh O'Donnell, a relative.

On Harry Van Looy's headstone someone, over the past 10 days, has left a handwritten note: "Harry, your mates are crying. At least we know everything was being done to find you and your workmates whatever the outcome."

The inference is the rescue attempt was immediate for the Strongman miners, unlike the Pike River 29 where the mine was deemed too volatile and dangerous for rescue teams to go in.

Yesterday, while rescuers were waiting for the gases in the mine to be stabilised a fourth explosion rocked it.

Mr O'Donnell knows a lot of the rescue men and says while the waiting has been traumatic, the hard part is still coming.

"They haven't been through hell yet," the veteran miner said.

"They've got to go in and discover them and that's going to be hell."

He won't say much about that gruesome day back in 67.

He was underground from 8am, through the explosion just after 10am and didn't emerge until 3 the next morning.

Neither will he say much about the situation at Pike River, but he does talk about what he sees as the dumbing down of safety measures since his time in the mines.

He was one of the boys and had been elected by them as a check inspector. This was a go-between position between the company, or in the case of the Strongman mine the state as it was state-owned, the workers and the top independent, all-powerful position of the Chief Inspector of Mines.

If the men had safety concerns they could go to him and he could go to the chief inspector who could shut the mine.

The crucial part was the chief inspector's independence, he said.

"Management couldn't get away with anything and the men couldn't get away with anything," he said.

"The inspectorate itself could be called on by either side or he could come in on his own and say I want to have a look at this section."

The positions of both check inspectors and chief inspector don't exist any more, he says.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday the number of safety inspectors - two for four coal mines and 450 miners - would form part of the inquiries into the tragedy.

Meanwhile, engineering and mining geologist David Bell has written to Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee to ask whether a Mines Department should be reinstated.

Mr Bell said New Zealand mines had fallen behind international mining standards in some areas, and could benefit from a specific regulatory body.

Mr O'Donnell is not saying Pike River wouldn't have happened if the old system had still been in existence.

But when you're dealing with safety all measures possible must be in place, he said.

Mr O'Donnell says that day at Strongman is etched in his mind and his memories of it are stronger than ever since the Pike River tragedy.

It's clearer somehow, even though it was 43 years ago, he says.

He was supposed to be working with the men who died but was sent to work further into the 182ha mine and was a mile (1.6km) underground when the blast happened.

At the time he wasn't happy at the transfer because it meant he would have to stay in the mine an extra hour.

Now he thanks his lucky stars.

At 10.04am, January 19, he remembers a whoosh like a strong gust of wind blowing lounge curtains out the window, then another whoosh blowing them back in.

The air was sucked out even where he was but where the dead men were working the air was replaced by carbon monoxide.

An explosive used to break up the coal had blasted through to gas which had gone up in a massive fireball which, had a roadway not been wet to extinguish it could well have killed many more of the 240-odd men underground that day.

All the bodies were recovered except for two who could not be found.

The mine was still worked after the explosion but the scene of the blast was sealed off.

Over time miners wrote messages to their dead friends on the underground stoppings, which Mr O'Donnell says is like a big brick wall where a door should be.

"What did you write?"

He replies, voice cracking once again: "We still work together."

Two such disasters in one lifetime is almost too much to bear.

- NZ Herald

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