October 28, 2010

Chile Celebrates, Will New Zealand Remember?

As Chile celebrates the rescue of its 33 miners, I am reminded of a disastrous mining incident little remembered in New Zealand.

Waikato Coalfields Museum
 Early last year, I visited the small, out-of the-way, little-known Waikato Coalfields Museum in Huntly – a nondescript town on the banks of the Waikato River. Huntly is one of those whizzing through points on the way to Hamilton, Rotorua or any place south of Auckland. The museum located in a quiet neighborhood is in what used to be a mining manager’s house.

Almost a century ago, and just a month later from the Chilean incident, an explosion was heard at 7:20 am on September 12, 1914 in Ralph’s coal mine in the centre of Huntly. A detailed and well-designed permanent exhibit of the disaster is showcased at the Waikato Coalfields Museum.

It was a Saturday, hence there were only 62 men working instead of the usual 160 men during the weekdays. Unlike Chile where it was a cave-in of a gold and copper mine, the one at Huntly was an explosion caused when the naked acetylene cap-lamp worn by a miner walking into an abandoned area came into contact with the methane gas in the air. A number of miners were able to escape up through the ventilation shaft while others got out through one elevator cage still working. It would take two weeks to finally recover the 43rd body. Those who did survive would suffer from severe burns. The Commission of Inquiry ordered the immediate introduction of safety lamps into the Huntly mines.

But this will not be the last of mining tragedies in New Zealand. On January 19, 1967, a Strongman coal mine exploded in Greymouth, West Coast killing 19 men. In both Huntly and Greymouth, there was one common denominator - the abandoned workings should have been checked for gas.

After reading the horrific accounts at the Waikato Coalfield Museum, including a detailed coroner’s report of every casualty, I paid a visit to the graves of the men at the Kimihia Cemetery two kilometres north of the town shopping centre.

Ralph Mine Disaster funeral procession 1914, Huntly Post Office and Huntly Press Office in background
Photo provided by: Waikato Coalfields Museum

This was a 19th century graveyard – maintained to a minimum. It was not hard to find the tombstones of the miners as the epitaphs in early 20th century prose spoke poignantly of a life and love that should have burned longer, of sons, brothers, fathers and husbands who will forever be yearned for, and an underlying anger at the preventable tragedy.

Although the tree-lined, brick-fenced cemetery was alongside State Highway 1, it was surprisingly quiet and felt secluded inside the graveyard. I remembered the accounts, news articles, pictures, and mementos I saw earlier in the museum. I felt the wrenching pain of a loss of a love one. I also felt the momentary desperation of those men who lived for a while before succumbing to the burns, injuries and inhalation of noxious gases. The youngest was 18 and the oldest was 63.

Today there is still coal mining in Huntly and in other parts of New Zealand. Has the country learned it's lesson?

Perhaps, the same question should be asked in all countries in the world where deep mining takes place.

Waikato Coalfields Museum   http://www.coal.net.nz/

To contact the author, please e-mail to: writetojosephlopez@yahoo.com

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