A decade since the Ballarat Goldmine rockfall and a dramatic rescue

All rescued: miners brought to the surface via a ventilation shaft at the Ballarat Goldmine. Picture: Ian Wilson.

All rescued: miners brought to the surface via a ventilation shaft at the Ballarat Goldmine. Picture: Ian Wilson.

At half-past three on the morning of November 19, 2007, the accident every miner dreads took place in the access tunnel of the Woolshed Gully operations of Ballarat Gold.

A rockfall in the upper section of the mine trapped 27 miners almost a kilometre under the earth for five hours, until they were rescued - lifted up a ventilation shaft on Elsworth Street - around five hours later.

Contemporary reports by The Courier said the miners were evacuated in a large bucket lowered by mobile crane into the ventilation shaft.

Courier journalist Emma McCracken wrote at the time, “Rescuer Brian Kane said the miners, who were ‘laughing and joking’, and their colleagues were confident of a successful evacuation. ‘’If you’re in the industry, you know what goes on. We knew they were alright,’’ he said.”

The mine, which was operated by Lihir Gold Ltd at the time, collapsed about 700m from the entrance of the main decline. 

Gold mining is the reason for Ballarat’s existence, but it remains to this day a dangerous business.

Driving shafts deep into the earth, tunnelling below millions of tonnes of soil in darkness – it’s a job for a very select few men and women.

Press conference: Shift boss Les Clayton talks to the assembled reporters after the rescue. Picture: Jeremy Bannister.

Press conference: Shift boss Les Clayton talks to the assembled reporters after the rescue. Picture: Jeremy Bannister.

It requires a certain capacity for seeing the humorous in a perilous position, which is exactly what happened in 2007.

Miners interviewed after the rescue made light of the ordeal.

One said to a press photographer at the scene, ‘‘I got dressed at 4am this morning; I’ve been trapped in a mine and I look better than you,’’.

Others keen to be photographed laughingly revealed later that they were the day shift and had not been underground that morning.

‘‘Why are we taking your photo then?’’ asked a reporter.

‘‘Because I’m so good looking, I s’pose,’’ was the reply.

The men stressed that they never felt in any real danger. They evacuated themselves to designated safety space and calmly awaited their rescue, which was swiftly organised.

Tension: miner's wife Laura James and friends wait for news. Picture: Ian Wilson.

Tension: miner's wife Laura James and friends wait for news. Picture: Ian Wilson.

The mine’s corporate affairs manager Joe Dowling said he wasn’t aware of the age of the shaft that collapsed.

"I think it's one of the older ones; it's been there for a very long time and there hasn't been a collapse at the mine that I'm aware of, but it's been in operation since the 1850s,” he said to reporters.

Since the 1850s almost 10,000 miners have been killed or injured in Victorian operations. While the great majority of these occurred in the early days, even recent incidents such as a miner getting her arm crushed in machinery at the Costerfield gold and antimony mine near Bendigo demonstrate its ever-present danger.

The female worker was trapped for ten minutes. Her colleagues were unable to hear her cries for help because the mine plant was so noisy.

One hundred and twenty five years before the Ballarat gold mine rescue, a wall collapsed in the New Australasian Mine No 2 at Creswick, in the early hours of the morning.

Forty-one miners on the night shift were working to find alluvial gold when one of them miscalculated and drove into the flooded No 1 mine next door. On the surface the roar of water pouring into the shaft spurred men to the pumps.

Fourteen miners scrambled from the mine. Twenty-seven remained trapped.

Two miners, Reeves and Mascon, were able to escape, warning four others along the way. Michael Carmody knocked on the air pipes to warn the men working further along the drive and informed the captain of the shift as well as John Manley, Thomas Chegwin, and Jabez Bellingham.

Fourteen of the men managed to escape. Below the earth, the trapped the men extinguished their candles to conserve air. A foul stench from the putrid water assailed them. Many of the men sang hymns and prayed, unsure whether they would ever see their wife or families again. Some wrote messages on their crib pails (food containers).

On the surface engine driver James Spargo began to increase the speed of the pump. He was soon joined by two more engine drivers, James Harris and Thomas Clough. Many above ground feared the men below had already drowned.

At about 9am the community of Creswick was made aware of the disaster, Crowds flocked to the shaft. Telegraphs were sent to the Mining Department in Melbourne requesting assistance, and four men were sent with diving equipment to help with the rescue effort.

Sadly, when they arrived in Creswick, their diving equipment was the wrong size and they had not brought enough air hose to reach the bottom of the shaft where the men were trapped. The men spent two nights trapped below the surface, while rescue efforts continued.

By Thursday, contact was finally made with the men, who told those on the surface they were all safe. Cheers rang out and the excitement spread to Ballarat by telegram. Five miners were brought to the surface: John Manly at 8.25am, then Tom Corbett, Patrick Bowen, Peter Maloney and Cornelius Quirk. But when the captain of the shift John Hodge came to the surface, he broke the news that there were no other survivors.

Disaster: John Hodge tells the assembled crowd that 22 of his colleagues are dead, drowned in the mine shaft.

Disaster: John Hodge tells the assembled crowd that 22 of his colleagues are dead, drowned in the mine shaft.

Their bodies were pulled from the mine later that morning, and a funeral attended by 15,000 people was held that afternoon. More than 4000 marched in the procession. Over 60 children were orphaned by the disaster.

Money was collected from towns and villages all over Victoria totalling £20,000. Widows received 15 shillings per week and the orphans from 5 shillings to 1 shilling until they started employment or reached 17 years. 

Within two years Parliament had changed the fund to The Mining Accident Relief Fund Act, 1884 for the benefit of all victims of mining accidents. The fund was wound up in 1949 long after the last widow had died.

Remains: the site of the New Australasian No.2 mine today. It is one of Australia's worst mine disasters.

Remains: the site of the New Australasian No.2 mine today. It is one of Australia's worst mine disasters.

The latter part of this article relies on work by Meg Rayner and the Creswick Museum.

This story A decade since the Ballarat Goldmine rockfall and a dramatic rescue first appeared on The Courier.