Strongman mine disaster 50th anniversary: Fire in the hole - grim tales from rescuers

By Paul McBride

Strongman mine anniversary Proto team members Jack Cox, George ewen and John Forbes take a break from efforts underground picture supplied by Greymouth star
Strongman mine anniversary Proto team members Jack Cox, George ewen and John Forbes take a break from efforts underground picture supplied by Greymouth star

West Coast history is littered with mass mining disasters, from Brunner in 1896 with the loss of 65 lives to Pike River in 2010 and another 29 lives wasted. In between there was another catastrophic explosion, Strongman, that took 19 men with it and devastated yet another generation of West Coasters.

It happened 50 years ago next week, yet is still a raw memory for many of those affected. As Greymouth and Runanga prepare to mark the passing of five decades, reporter Paul McBride caught up with the five surviving members of the Mines Rescue teams, Harry Bell, Terry Crowley, John Cox, Wayne Fitzmaurice and Yorkie Middleton, who are still haunted by the grim task of retrieving the bodies straight after the gas explosion on January 19, 1967.

Harry Bell

Harry Bell led the second rescue team underground and he says the memory still weighs heavily on his mind.

Harry had worked at Strongman, in the Nine Mile Valley, as dog watch deputy in 1965 before moving to the Liverpool No3 at Rewanui to work as an underviewer on the backshift. He was at home at the time of the explosion.

"I was around at my dad's fixing some dripping taps as I was on the backshift. Phyllis Johnson lived nearby and she rushed in saying something has happened out at the Strongman Mine. Eric Holm, my mine manager at Rewanui, got hold of me soon after getting a ring to get the Mines Rescue team out to the Strongman Mine as quickly as possible."

Miners in the rescue team from Rewanui were coming down on the rail to the Dunollie Station, where Harry was waiting in his Ford V8 sedan ready to transport them out to Strongman.

"Roy Hiha was in charge of the station and asked me what was going on and I said, 'I think there has been an explosion at the Strongman'. I noticed Don Banks, the Strongman day watch deputy, sitting on the steps of his home across from the station. I left the keys in my car for the others and I jumped into Don's vehicle and out we went. We had to go through a police roadblock on the way.

"Archie Auld knew I had worked at the Strongman and knew where to go, so I led the second rescue team. Archie, Ronnie Gibb and Dick Thomas had already been into the Green No2 section and certified there were no survivors - they saw what they thought were all the bodies.

"We could walk 2km into the mine without oxygen masks as the exterior fan was blowing fresh air into the mine. Priority was setting up a fresh air base at the jig and replacing the stopping, which had been blown out. The air was coming in and going straight out - it was short-circuiting. We quickly had the stopping in place with the brattice, moving the fresh air up to the fresh air base and circulating."

Harry Bell. Photo / Greymouth star
Harry Bell. Photo / Greymouth star

The Mines Rescue team entered the Green No2 section all wearing Protosorb breathing equipment, which had a two-hour capacity.

"The Protosorb filters the carbon dioxide out of our breath and the oxygen left from the expelled air is replenished with more oxygen from the oxygen bottle, and as they ran out we'd grab another bottle from the fresh air base."

On entering Green's dip the rescuers were immediately confronted by the graphic evidence of a large explosion.

"All the mine tubs were piled up against each other ... the heat was intense - black dust and wood thrown everywhere. While making access, three bodies were found and initially we got five of the bodies from the right-hand section. First we got Hec McKenzie, Jimmy Watson and George Kinsey out, and then Russell Cust and Hughie O'Donnell. We carried their bodies by stretcher to the fresh air base.

"It was tough, I knew them all. Russell Cust lived just up the road from me - he was just 20 years old. We didn't have goggles on in those days and my eyes were stinging from the heat, dust and humidity. We eventually got 15 of the bodies out by midnight, and everyone was exhausted ... It was well after midnight when we decided to head home."

When the rescue team arrived back at the mine the next morning Harry says they soon realised a fire was burning in the mine, in the Green No2 section.

"There was the smell of smoke which started coming out - a fire was burning down there. We had no hesitation in sealing the section for three weeks. When the fire was out we went back in and found two more bodies, but whereas the remaining two bodies may have been visible at the first fall, conditions had changed. During the three weeks the mine was sealed the roof had collapsed again not far from where we brought out Johnny Trukawaka's body. There was timber and props everywhere and our rescue team hunted for the remaining two. The sad thing was we left Bricky Moore and Dudley Robinson behind.

"On looking back, the Buller and Reefton rescue teams were on standby and not asked to come down. If they had been there I think we would have got all the bodies out."

Mines rescue team members about to head underground. From left: Harry Bell, Bill Munden, Wilf Broadman (obscured), Yorkie Middleton and Dobson rescue manager Ron Neilson. Photo / Greymouth Star
Mines rescue team members about to head underground. From left: Harry Bell, Bill Munden, Wilf Broadman (obscured), Yorkie Middleton and Dobson rescue manager Ron Neilson. Photo / Greymouth Star

Terry Crowley

Terry Crowley was at home in Cobden and was set to work in the Strongman Mine Green No2 section on the afternoon shift when word of the explosion first surfaced.

"My wife was shopping in Greymouth and I was looking after our 6-month-old daughter when the phone went to get out to the Strongman, quick. I passed my daughter over to the neighbours and flagged down Wally Hale in his taxi and he drove me out to the mine. I had been rostered to work that afternoon in the section and take over from my cross mates, Peter Mountford and Johnny Trukawaka.

"The adrenalin was pumping as I went to the bath house and got changed. The Mines Rescue van was there and guys were milling around waiting while I went and grabbed a rescue set. I went into the mine and some others came in with me to the start of the Green section. Up to that point there was fresh air and some of the miners who had been underground in other sections of the mine were there staying to help.

"Archie Auld asked Ronnie Gibb and I to put the breathing on and go through and check the ventilation seals were intact. We found one was damaged very close to where the fresh air base was being set up. We fixed the seal from outside and then the rescue guys were divided into teams ...

"The atmosphere was totally irrespirable - one mouthful of air would kill you, with the carbon monoxide and noxious gas.

"Greens is an inclined area but when you first go in, the ground is level ... The area I was assigned to work was up the rise. It was so hot in there, humid and uncomfortable with no ventilation. We could see the bodies of the men - the injuries were horrific.

"The blast had come down all the different roadings and all met at the entrance area of Greens. In other areas, the offshoots from the roads, there wasn't as much damage but there was one large rockfall."

Once the mine entrance to the Greens No2 section was sealed off after the fire, he and the rescue teams returned 30 days later and went back to search for the remaining bodies.

"We got two more bodies out and some of the rescuers had metal rods, poking and prodding looking for the remaining bodies. Our rescue teams couldn't have done any more. I believe Bricky Moore and Dudley Robinson's bodies were beneath the large rockfall and there was a lot of sadness leaving those men behind.

"I knew all the miners who were killed, knew them very well - Hector McKenzie lived straight across the road from me. I'll never forget it - there is always some form of reminder around Christmas, but January 19, I never forget that day."

Wayne Fitzmaurice

Wayne Fitzmaurice. Photo / Greymouth star
Wayne Fitzmaurice. Photo / Greymouth star

Wayne Fitzmaurice was on the backshift and usually worked on the main drive at Strongman. He was also at home on the Thursday morning.

"I was to work that afternoon through to the early evening. We were living in Bright St in Cobden at the time. I got the message there had been a blast and I went straight out to the Strongman. I was 19 years old then.

"There was a roadblock at Rapahoe but I went straight through, being in the Mines Rescue, and got up to the bath house area. Miners were still coming out of the mine. There were quite a few men getting ready to go underground. Archie Auld had us all up there, he was the man and he was calling the shots that day. Archie, Ronnie Gibb and Dick Thomas had already been down the section to see if there were any survivors, and we were waiting for the OK to go in."

After a quick meeting with managers they put their Proto gear on.

"We walked into the fresh air base, which was already in place, and went down into the Green section. I was in Ronnie Gibbs' team with Norm Adams, Johnny Walker, John Forbes, Jim Duggan and Alwen Cowan. We put our plugs in our mouths and in we went.

"Straight away you knew there had been a blast with lots of timber thrown around, coal tubs piled up, and I remember a lot of dust. We had no eye protection. It was just so hot, but once you got into the job you settled into what you were there for. I kept my eyes on Ronnie [Gibb] for his signals what to do, he was the leader of our pack and he made me feel safe.

"I could see there would be no chance of any survivors. It was teamwork, we all worked as one to get the bodies out. The first miner I got to was Bing Williams, he was burnt from the blast but I recognised him all right. The blast would have killed those in its path, and if the blast didn't the gas would have, those guys had no chance.

"We did everything we could ... and were trained to do. As we found the men's bodies we took them out to the fresh air base and worked all through the day and late at night, still searching. After the section was sealed we came back to search for the remaining four bodies, but we had to leave two behind, which saddens me.

"I never spoke much about that day, it got to me now and again. There was no such thing as counselling then, we were just trained to do a job.

"Most of the miners in the section would hang their watches on the crossbeam where they were working. I remember a couple of watches were still hanging there in perfect condition - all had stopped at the same time, 10.04am. That's a vital memory for me, this one watch hanging there. The flat sheet where the boxes were always turned was ripped, buckled and bent, timber everywhere - and here's this watch in perfect condition ..."

Team members Jack Cox, George ewen and John Forbes take a break from efforts underground. Photo / Greymouth Star
Team members Jack Cox, George ewen and John Forbes take a break from efforts underground. Photo / Greymouth Star

Johnny Cox

Johnny Cox came down on the train from the Liverpool Mine as soon as word of the explosion broke, and together with fellow Mines Rescue personnel he jumped into Harry Bell's V8 sedan, which was waiting at the Dunollie Railway Station.

"A lot of the Strongman men were standing around when we got out there. I had a brother, Harry, working at the Strongman at the time - he was in the bath house when I arrived. I got kitted out with the rescue gear and I remember some of the Strongman workers had already taken gear in.

"At the bottom of the section was the fresh air base and as we walked in I knew things were serious, but it didn't seem to affect you at the time as it was what you had trained for. We used to train in areas of the mine and we had been through the Dobson Mine, opened it up where the explosion had been and trained in the conditions before sealing it up again.

"We went into the Green section with the mindset of getting the bodies out. Archie Auld, Ronnie Gibb and Dick Thomas had already assessed the situation - it was not a rescue but a recovery. A lot of the timber was blown down and we had to clear our way through the timber and the tubs. It was a real mess and very hot and dusty, no goggles, and we carried our safety kit on the front with a strap.

"As we came across the bodies we carried them out to the jig - the fresh air base not far from the entrance to the Green section, to the Strongman workers. They would carry the bodies out and we would go back into the section and search for more. In the end we recovered 15 bodies on that first day ... The bodies affected by the blast were knocked around pretty bad, black as anything. The men working on the outside section had tried to run out but they only ran for 15 yards but got caught by the gas."

Johnny got home at 2 o'clock the following morning and was back out at Strongman at 7am.

"The gases had built up to explosive range and [there were] signs there would be another blast, so we closed it off and came back three weeks later. We checked the levels and went back in looking for the remaining four bodies. The section was all much the same and we went in with our breathing gear and got two of the men out. A lot of work was done to try to find the last two bodies. We searched and searched but we couldn't find them. There had been a big fall around where they had been working and I believe the last two bodies were under the fall."

Yorkie Middleton

Yorkie Middleton. Photo / Greymouth star
Yorkie Middleton. Photo / Greymouth star

Yorkie Middleton was on the backshift at the Dobson Mine and was at home at the time of the explosion.

"Three of us in our Mines Rescue team, myself, Bill Munden and Snowy Cruz, headed straight out to the Strongman. We all had a briefing outside the entrance. Archie Auld, who was very experienced, told us straight what to expect and basically said, 'If you don't think you can hack it, don't go in'. We got the safety gear and walked into the fresh air base; we didn't need to put it on until we were ready to go into the area where the explosion had occurred.

"I hadn't been down the Strongman before but the three of us from Dobson were put in one of the rescue teams. Everything was knocked around to hell but the focus was to get in and get out quick. It was smashed in places and so hot - if Hell is any hotter then I don't want to go there. We were using oxygen but I have never experienced heat like that, burning heat.

"You knew there had been a big explosion, a hell of a mess, but you were that well trained for Mines Rescue it became second nature. If there was a better leader than Archie Auld, I'd eat my hat - he just gave you confidence.

"We went back later after the section had been sealed but a lot of the area had fallen in. We got two more of the bodies out but we couldn't find the other two, and we searched so hard for those two men.

"My wife used to say how I would roar and bellow in my sleep following the Strongman explosion. I had to work the day after, out at Dobson on the pumps. I was jumpy when I was down there but it helped me, I suppose.

"I try to put going down the Strongman behind me - and it stays that way."

- Greymouth Star

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 25 May 2017 00:20:09 Processing Time: 745ms