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Colliery Disaster Ayrshire

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 12 September 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Fuel and Power if he will make a statement on the disaster at Knockshinnoch Castle colliery, Ayrshire.

Yes, Sir. At 8.20 p.m. on Thursday last, 7th September, the support roof of a shallow working in the Knockshinnoch Castle colliery gave way, and a great mass of water, moss, peat and clay fell in. The working had been driven steeply uphill towards the outcrop of the seam; above it there was a natural hollow in which, owing to torrential rain, a great weight of water had accumulated.

One hundred and thirty-five miners were in the pit when the disaster occurred. Six of them escaped at once to the surface. One hundred and sixteen were rescued during the evening of Saturday, 9th September. Thirteen are still entombed, and every effort to find them has so far failed.

The inrush of silt blocked every entrance to the Castle Pit, and there seemed at first little hope that anyone could be saved. Fortunately, however, the workings of the adjoining Bank Pit were only separated from the Castle Pit by a barrier of 24 feet of coal, and as the underground telephone continued to work, the imprisoned men could be instructed where and how they should open up a tunnel for their escape.

The workings on the Bank side of this barrier had, however, been abandoned for many years, and were filled with a heavy concentration of firedamp in which no one could live without protective apparatus for more than a few seconds. It was necessary, therefore, not only to open up the passage for escape, but also to devise measures against the danger of the gas. Efforts to draw off the gas were unavailing. The rescue workers had, therefore, to take into the men protective apparatus which they could use when they came out. This apparatus, known as the Salvus, was obtained from the fire brigade and other services in the division.

During the evening of Saturday, 9th September, the imprisoned men reported that firedamp was closing in on them on the Castle side of the barrier. A joint decision was, therefore, made to try to bring them out with the Salvus mask. This was not without risk, as none of the men had been trained to use the Salvus, and the passage through the firedamp zone on the Bank side was long and arduous. The decision was, however, justified by the fact that every one of the 116 men successfully escaped.

Meanwhile, attempts had been made to find the 13 men who are still missing. Nearly all the places in which they might be alive have already been searched, either by rescue parties working from the crater where the original subsidence occurred, or by the men who were imprisoned and subsequently escaped. Last night a conference of the Coal Board, the trade unions and the Inspectorate of Mines reluctantly decided that there is now little hope that any of the missing men can be alive. But, of course, the rescue workers are still ceaselessly pressing on with every practicable measure to make the pit safe for further exploration.

The outstanding fact of this tragic event is that 116 men were rescued from what seemed at first to be a desperate, if not a hopeless, situation. This magnificent result was due to the knowledge, perseverance and devotion of those concerned, including the imprisoned miners, the rescue squads, the Chief Inspector of Mines and his associates, the management, and the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers. Mr. Andrew Houston, an overman who was in the mine when the disaster occurred, took charge of the imprisoned men, assembled them in a safe place and organised and inspired them throughout. He showed courage, presence of mind, and leadership of a high order. Mr. David Park, the Divisional Deputy Labour Director of the National Coal Board, was the first man to go through the firedamp zone in the Bank Colliery and to join the imprisoned men through the tunnel they had made. He stayed with them until the last of them had been brought safely out.

Mr. Macdonald, the Area Production Manager, and Mr. Stewart, the Sub-Area Production Manager, took charge of the operations at the advanced fresh air base underground. They made the crucial decisions underground on which success largely depended. Mr. Dyer, the Superintendent at Coatbridge Rescue Station, organised the 25 teams—rescue brigade workers—who took part and to whom the miners give the highest praise.

The Chief Inspector of Mines, Sir Andrew Bryan, considers that this is one of the greatest rescue operations in the history of the mining industry. I am sure that the House would wish to congratulate all those who took part. I am sure hon. Members will also wish to express their deepest sympathy with the families of the men who are still missing in the mine.