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The sad story of 17 men entombed trying to save ‘a rotten coal mine’

The explosion echoed out around Ipswich the night the Box Flat Mine exploded.

What was originally thought by some people to be an earthquake, was in fact the worst mining disaster in the history of Ipswich.

At 2.47am on 31 July 1972, a powerful explosion ripped through the Swanbank mine.

Seventeen men were killed and critical injuries sustained from the disaster eventually claimed the life of another man a year later.

A fire had started the day before 300 meters underground when efforts were made to try and contain the fire.

Several attempts to starve the fire of oxygen by sealing off parts of the mine 1km below failed.

After the blast, thick black smoke billowed from wreckage of the mine buildings and it was decided to seal the mine, entombing the men inside.

Eight men were from the Mines Rescue Station, nine were officials and employees of Box Flat Mine.

Family members, union officials, the Salvation Army and Women’s Auxiliary gathered for a memorial service while smoke still filled the air.

The mine entrance was then bulldozed.

Local historian Hugh Taylor (pictured) has produced a documentary called Mining Elements Harsh Lessons.

It looks at six major accidents that have occurred in Ipswich mines since 1893, including the Box Flat disaster.

“I have worked in the mining industry all my life and I think it is vitally important that we know and learn from our history,” Mr Taylor said.

“As humans we are always looking to invent bigger and better ways of doing things and if we don’t know and understand our history we could reinvent not only happy times but sad times also.

“The real crux of knowing our history is so we don’t reinvent disasters.”

Hugh Taylor

The 17 men who died on 31 July 1972 at the Box Flat Mine:

A. C. Haywood
B. H. Randolph
B. Rasmussen
D. T. Reinhardt
H. C. Reinhardt
J. D. Roach
J. J. McNamara
K. F. Cobbin
L. A. Rogers
M. J. Tait
M. Verrenkamp
R. L. Jones
W. A. Marshall
W. B. Williams
W. M. Murphy
W. R. Drysdale
W. A. Drewett. 

C.E. Wolski died in 1974 as a result of the injuries he sustained in the explosion.

The documentary delves into the Eclipse Colliery at Tivoli which collapsed in the 1893 flood killing seven.

The Cardiff Colliery in Blackstone 1919, Redbank Mine in 1928, Hart’s Aberdare in 1936 and New Ebbw Vale mine at Woodend in 1945 all had disasters caused by explosions.

Mining Elements Harsh Lessons interviews miners who were present at the time of the Box Flat disaster.

Alan Berlin

One of those was Alan Berlin who shares his recollection from that day.

“I was at the billy cart races with my kids when I got the call to come in,” Mr Berlin said.

“I was told pick up my boots and overalls and meet at the pit top at the number five tunnel.

“We went to see where the fire was. The fan was chock-a-block with black smoke. Smoke started coming down the intake to the fresh air side of the mine so we resigned to go to the pit bottom but they wouldn’t pull us away.

“We just about cut the wires in two with the hack saw.

“The roof was so hot you couldn’t stand your hand against it.

“They ended up pulling us up.

“We had a cup of coffee and went down again.”

Mr Berlin went up and down two more times as part of the mine recuse crew trying to work out how to put out the fire.

He offered to go down a fourth time but his supervisor took some of the freshly arrived men instead.

It was a cold night and to keep warm Mr Berlin was shovelling sand bags from an excavators bucket when he felt the concrete start to shake.

“We dived under the loader and that is what I believed saved our lives,” he said.

“I saw the ball of flame and the paddock was like sparklers, it was the coal dust burning on the grass.”

Some men were trapped in the deputy’s cabin beside them and the uninjured workers got them out. 

Box Flat Mine on fire. Image courtesy The Courier-Mail.

Ambulances arrived and transported the injured to Ipswich Hospital.

“We were going to mount a rescue but they couldn’t restore the power to the mine,” he said.

“They told us to go home and see our wives.”

The next morning, a few hours later, Mr Berlin went back.

“We prepared two teams to go underground. We put on our breathing apparatus and checked it all out and went over to ask the mine owner chief inspector ‘what are we going to do’.”

They said they would be closing the mine in.

They had a service for the blokes underground and started dozing the tunnel in.

“I was had it,” Mr Berlin said.

“I couldn’t even drive home.

“That is the sad story of 17 men trying to save a rotten coal mine.”

The Ipswich Historical Society is inviting the community to pay its respects at the site on Wednesday, July 31 at 10am.

The 47th Memorial Service will be held at the Box Flat Memorial, Swanbank Road, Swanbank.

 

The documentary Mining Elements Harsh Lessons is available from the Ipswich Historical Society at the Cooneana Heritage Centre, 1041 Redbank Plains Road, New Chum.

They are open to the public on Thursday, Friday and Saturday between 10am and 2pm.

Ipswich First

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