A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A Miner Looks Back

by Dr John Crowley

29 miners were killed in the methane gas explosion of the Pike River Coal Mine between Greymouth and Reefton on November 19th 2010. Repeated explosions prevented rescue attempts, although it is likely all were killed in the initial explosion and firestorm.

Davey lamp

A miner's Davey lamp

The Strongman Mine also worked the Brunner coal seam, a high methane seam, which had previously exploded killing 19 miners on 19 January 1967. The Brunner Mine disaster, which occurred on 26 March, 1896 was the worst mining disaster in New Zealand’s history. A total of 65 miners died in the disaster, almost half of the Brunner underground work force. So the Brunner coal seam has killed 113 miners: it is enough.

I was born in Greymouth at Rewa Hospital, and at 17 I worked as a trucker in a coal mine near Reefton on the West Coast. The same age as Joseph Dunbar, who started on the day of the mine explosion.

The day I started work, arriving at the mine, I noticed smoke about a mile away and they said it was an old mine on fire, just smouldering because there was not enough oxygen for flames.

Mines are dangerous places, we wore carbide headlamps with naked flames about 2 inches long, a good light, but crazy with methane gas present. The mine manager used to come around with a Davy Safety lamp which had a shielded flame which lengthened in the presence of methane and would show a blue halo if methane increased.

One day as I pushed my truck along, the tram line was blocked by a large lump of coal which had fallen from the ceiling. Most of the mine had no props supporting the ceiling. The mine manager hit the ceiling with a pick and declared, “Sound as a bell!”.

Another day the tunnel started to fill with water until halfway up the truck, which stopped me. I walked to the mine face from which the flood of water was pouring – they had fired a shot into an old mine filled with water. Some years later nearer Greymouth the same thing happened and the tunnel filled with water drowning one of the miners, the other found an airspace near the ceiling and a prop to hang on to.

Miner & wagon

Miner & wagon

In 1985 – 30 years after I had left, a shot was fired into the coal face which broke into the old mine, that had been smouldering. No explosion occurred, but 4 miners were found dead in the middle of their tea break killed by the wet (black) damp: air with all of the oxygen burnt out of it and loaded with carbon dioxide.

Throughout New Zealand people have come to light candles for the 29 dead miners and it is a totally, beautiful appropriate thing to do for in a coal mine the darkness is profound, you cannot even tell where the walls of the tunnel are if your light blows out in the gale from the fans. The candle’s light also represents the miner’s living soul.

In the spilt second before death men may well have called on their God. I was bought up in Ross with Mass and evening Benediction every Sunday and family Rosary and a Convent School. Prayer for a happy death was common. The ‘Hail Mary’ concludes “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour (or split second) of our death”. We can add “that the dying meet Jesus in their passing.”
But we do know that a soul can be saved at the last moment of a life not given to God; that is certain in the case of the Penitent Thief and we may hope, please God, it has been true of countless other lives. Thus the moment of death is a moment of decisive importance. Life does not just depend on being good and being bad; God’s grace is what we want to pray for.

When, as a doctor, talking to people facing death or the loss of a baby or a loved one, and wanting to tap into their resources, I sometimes asked them if they ever prayed. A surprising number did. But I was sometimes surprised at the ‘un-prayer book‘ nature of the prayer and the God they prayed too. I had the distinct feeling that God did not mind, we are not justified by the religious laws we have so rigorously kept but by the Redeemer’s love for us and to seek that love is the key.

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