It was one of the worst disasters in Scotland's mining history yet somehow these 116 men were rescued from a coal mine which had collapsed while they were working hundreds of feet below ground.
Thirteen men died at the Knockshinnoch Castle Colliery at New Cumnock in Ayrshire when an area the size of a football pitch collapsed on 7 September 1950, under the weight of moss and peat after heavy rain.
But 116 were brought to the surface on the third day in one of the most remarkable rescues ever attempted.
The accident occurred about 7.30 p.m., whilst the afternoon shift was at work, on Thursday, 7th September, 1950, when a large volume of liquid peat or moss suddenly broke through from the surface into the No. 5 Heading Section of the Main Coal Seam. The inrush started at the point where the No. 5 Heading, which was rising at a gradient of 1 in 2, had effected a holing at the outcrop of the seam beneath superficial deposits and had made contact with the base of a relatively large natural basin containing glacial material and peat. The liquid matter, rushing down the steeply inclined heading, continued to flow for some time and soon filled up a large number of existing and abandoned roadways as well as several working places, until it eventually cut off the two means of egress to the surface from the underground workings of the colliery.
There were 135 persons employed underground at the time. Six persons working near the shaft bottom quickly escaped to the surface by way of the downcast shaft before it become blocked, while 116, with all means of escape cut off, found their way inbye to a part of the mine then unaffected by the inrush, leaving 13 persons missing. The 116 men were rescued about two days later. The 13 missing men were all employed in or about the No. 5 Heading Section where the inrush began. One was the fireman in charge of the district; one was the shot-firer ; nine were coal getters employed at the face of three different working places, while the other two were concerned with the transport of coal from the district.
The overman, Andrew Houston, had collected 115 workmen in the neighbourhood of the inbye end of the West Mine. It was apparent that the greater part of the roadways between the shafts and this point were blocked with enormous quantities of sludge and that a very long period of time, probably running into months, would be required in order to reach the men by clearing a passage along these roads.
News of the disaster was conveyed at once to the higher officials of the Ayr and Dumfries Area of the National Coal Board, representatives of the mine-workers and of the Mines Inspectorate and many of them were on the scene within a very short time. The position was discussed and it soon became obvious that the only hope of rescuing the imprisoned men was to make a connection through the narrow barrier, already described, between Knockshinnoch Castle and Bank No. 6 at the point where the water had been pumped through. The overman, Andrew Houston, in charge of the imprisoned men was informed of the position by telephone and he was instructed to explore the Waterhead Dook from his side. This was done and it was found that the roadways were open and that the place containing the borehole was accessible.
Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Richford, the District Inspector of Mines, then descended the mine at 2.30 a.m. on 8th September, and met Mr. Rowland and his party who were returning to report, and received the information that the teams had been able to travel along the old road inbye the point where the connection to Knockshinnoch Castle would have to be made. The roads were full of firedamp and the inspection had been made with the use of apparatus, a fresh-air base being established in cross-cut.
As electricians, engineers and voluntary workers were now available, detailed arrangements were made on the spot for the installation of auxiliary fans in an attempt to clear the accumulation of gas. By midday on Friday, 8th September, the gas had been cleared about 300 feet up the right-hand roadway, and hope of clearing the remaining firedamp appeared good. Rescue men were used to extend the canvas tubing from the auxiliary fan as the gas cleared, but the position fluctuated considerably and very soon it became common procedure to have to send them forward to shorten (by removing the last extension piece) the fan tubing in order to consolidate progress.
A sound powered microphone obtained from Coatbridge Rescue Station enabled telephonic communication to be maintained from the underground operational base through a normal pit 'phone, to the surface base at Bank No. 6. About 4 p.m. on Friday, 8th September, when the telephone to the imprisoned men began to show signs of weakening, the trapped men on the Knockshinnoch Castle side were instructed to start making a passage through the barrier which separated the two workings. They were told to halt just short of the old road lest the firedamp from Bank No. 6 should foul their atmosphere which was then reported to be free from firedamp. It became obvious, however, that more urgent measures would have to be adopted if the gas from Bank No. 6 side was to be cleared in time.
When the trapped men had received instructions to commence making a passage through the barrier, they were warned to keep a small hole in advance and to watch the direction of the air. If the air came from Bank No. 6 into the Knockshinnoch Castle workings, the hole was to be immediately plugged and they were to await further instructions. Fortunately, however, when the hole was made, it was found that the air travelled from Knockshinnoch Castle to Bank No. 6 side and so instructions were then given for the hole to be enlarged to enable rescue brigade men to pass through and take food and drink to the trapped men. The flow of air through the hole from Knockshinnoch to Bank did not persist, however, and after a while died away except for a slight ebb and flow. But as a precautionary measure, the hole was screened to isolate the two ventilating systems as far as practicable.
In the meantime arrangements had been made for a rescue brigade team to carry food and drink through to the trapped men. On the night of Friday, 8th September, the overman, Andrew Houston, went to the holing to greet the first rescue team and conduct them to the trapped men. Up to this time, all telephone messages from Andrew Houston to the surface had indicated that the atmosphere was free of gas in the Knockshinnoch workings. But when Houston was on his way back with the rescue team, he found men erecting a brattice at the top of the Waterhead Dook and two of the trapped firemen told him that gas was collecting there. The trapped men had previously been told, of course, of the presence of a large body of gas in the roadway on the Bank side and of the efforts that were being made to clear it so that they could walk out, but this was the first indication of gas on the Knockshinnoch side. This news was kept back from the main body of the trapped men lest it should adversely affect their morale. But, quite naturally, with the arrival of the food and rescue brigade, the trapped men thought their hour of rescue had come and that they had now nothing more to do but to walk out with the rescue team. Houston had to explain to them that the gas on the Bank No. 6 side had not been cleared and that it might be a considerable time yet before they could be rescued. The food and drink and the visit of the rescue team had cheered them greatly, but the news that they must still wait was a bitter disappointment.
It was now apparent to those in charge of the rescue operations that the clearing of the gas from the Bank No. 6 workings presented a major problem and consideration was now given to the possibility of the trapped men having to be brought through the irrespirable zone by means of self-contained breathing apparatus. With this possibility in view, instructions had previously been given to collect as many sets of Salvus apparatus as possible from all readily available sources. This apparatus, like the Proto apparatus used by the rescue brigades.
Following an inspection and a careful review of all the circumstances in the early morning of Saturday, 9th September, the fact had to be accepted that despite all efforts, no real progress had been made in clearing the Bank side roadways of gas. Nor was there any immediate prospect of substantial progress. A scheme was then formulated to use rescue teams consisting of six members, each team to escort three of the trapped men wearing Salvus apparatus, through the irrespirable zone. It was estimated that it would take forty hours to evacuate all the trapped men in this manner ; but since all the telephone messages to the surface from the trapped men up to this time indicated that fresh air was still circulating and now that it was known that the men could be supplied with food and drink, this long period, although regrettable, caused no undue alarm.
It was fully realized, of course, that to put such a scheme into operation would be a risky venture, since the trapped men were wholly unaccustomed to wearing rescue apparatus, and the hope was that the gas filled roadways could be cleared and the men would be able to walk out in fresh air.
Soon alter the holing was made between Knockshinnoch and Bank, disquieting rumours began to circulate about the state of mind of the trapped men. They were restless and puzzled by the delay in their release ; and rumour had it that some of them, especially among the younger element, were talking about making a suicidal dash for safety through the gas-filled roadways. At this juncture, Mr. D. W. Park, Deputy Labour Director of the Scottish Division of the National Coal Board, who had arrived late on the night of Friday, 8th September, suggested to Lord Balfour, Chairman of the Divisional Board, that it might be a good thing if someone put on a Proto apparatus and went through to join the trapped men in order to explain the position fully to them, tell them about the difficulties being encountered and all that was being done to effect their release. Mr. Park volunteered his services for this purpose. As a boy he had worked in the pits in New Cumnock and at one time had been the captain of the local rescue brigade. Subsequently he had also gained experience as a member of the permanent brigade attached to the Houghton-le-Spring Fire and Rescue Station in County Durham. It so happened that the brigade men at this Station were also trained as firemen and thus he also had experience in the use of the Salvus apparatus which was then used for rescue purposes during fire-fighting on the surface. Moreover, he knew many of the imprisoned men personally, including Andrew Houston, whom he felt he could help in his efforts to control the men. His offer was accepted on condition that he came back out after talking to the men and, following a medical examination for fitness, he joined a rescue brigade team which entered the Knockshinnoch workings at 3.40 a.m. on Saturday, 9th September. His appearance was warmly welcomed. As Andrew Houston said in evidence : "Well, I don't think another man breathing could have come in that would give me more confidence than Mr. David Park".
Mr. Park called the men round him, told them all that was being done to rescue them, calmed their fears and generally restored their morale which was being severely tested, and thus assisted the overman to restore discipline. His action was in a large measure responsible for the ultimate safe rescue of all the entombed men.
After addressing the men, he had a look round and found that the atmospheric conditions were far from satisfactory. Firedamp was making its appearance in the neighbourhood and the percentage was steadily increasing. He instructed the captain of a rescue team to inform those in charge of the rescue operations at the fresh air base that the condition of the ventilation in the Knockshinnoch workings was quickly deteriorating and was much worse than he could intimate over the telephone in the presence of the trapped men. There was from 3 to 5 per cent, of firedamp in the general body of the air at the telephone and, unless something was done very quickly, he was afraid it would be too late.
It was now realized by those in charge, that drastic measures would have to be taken at once and a new scheme was drawn up forthwith by the officials then in charge of the advanced fresh-air base, Messrs. MacDonald, Richford and Stewart. This was to form a "chain" of rescue brigade men along the whole length of the gas filled roadway on the Bank side who would pass sets of Salvus apparatus through to the trapped men. A rescue team would enter the Knockshinnoch workings and instruct the men in the use of the apparatus, fit it on them, and pass them out along the "chain". Mr. Stewart, the Sub-area Production Manager, returned to the surface to report the proposal and to request that a general call be made for additional trained rescue brigade men from Lanarkshire to enable the scheme to be put into operation with the least possible delay. Although they felt that the proposals were not in accordance with the Rescue Regulations, the principal officials on the surface agreed, but with grave misgivings, and about midday on Saturday, 9th September, instructions were given to put the scheme into operation.
By 12.30 p.m. on Saturday, 9th September, there were five rescue teams present at the main fresh-air base. Ample reviving apparatus, stretchers, blankets and first-aid men were available, as well as two doctors with medical supplies. One of the imprisoned men was in a very weak state and could only be brought out on a stretcher. A team was sent through to give the sick man an injection provided by one of the doctors.
It was then decided that it would give the trapped men a good deal of confidence in the use of the Salvus apparatus if the sick man was rescued. A team was sent in with a stretcher, two sets of Salvus apparatus and blankets at 12.30 p.m. At 2.45 p.m. the sick man was brought to the fresh-air base. By this time, owing to various delays and incidents, all five teams had been used and there was a further two hours' delay before sufficient teams could be assembled at the base to enable the main "chain" operation to be attempted.
The main operation was started in the following manner. A team of permanent rescue men from Coatbridge Station was instructed to proceed direct to the Knockshinnoch Castle side, disconnect their apparatus, do all they could 10 build up the morale of the trapped men, and explain both the general plan of action and the use of the Salvus apparatus before fitting it to each man and .ending him out. They were to remain on this job without relief if possible. The members of the team took in Salvus apparatus and spare electric cap lamps to be used in the event of the lamps of the trapped men being exhausted. This team was informed that further supplies of Salvus apparatus would be passed to them by the other rescue brigade men who would be forming the "chain" through the irrespirable zone.
Immediately afterwards four other teams were sent off, also carrying Salvus apparatus and spare lamps, with instructions to pass them forward to the Coatbridge Brigade on the Knockshinnoch Castle side. They were then to establish the "chain" whereby the remainder of the Salvus apparatus and spare lamps could be passed from the advanced fresh-air base through to the trapped men.
The overman in charge, Houston, drew up a rota regulating the order in which the imprisoned men were to be taken out. He decided that the older men should go first, but as the strain of waiting eventually began to tell on some of the younger members, many of them were allowed to go before all the older men had gone.
As the operation proceeded, two doctors, Dr. Sharp, H.M. Medical Inspector of Mines, and Dr. Bannatyne, of Ayr County Hospital, remained at the advanced fresh-air base, whilst three others, Drs. Gooding, Fyfe and Watson, remained at the main fresh-air base. All the rescued men were medically examined at the underground fresh-air base before they were allowed to proceed outbye to the surface. About 8.15 p.m., the overman, Andrew Houston, was instructed to come out, leaving Mr. Park in charge of the remaining men. His presence was required in order to ascertain, as far as might be possible, the last known positions of the missing men.
Towards the end of the evacuation it was reported by one of the returning rescue men that one of the trapped men, who suffered badly from asthma, had attempted to come out twice but had been forced to return. It was decided that he should be brought out on a stretcher. The doctors were informed and they suggested the man should be given certain pills and another injection which they could provide. A rescue brigade man was instructed on this procedure and given a team who took in a stretcher for the express purpose of dealing with this case. The man was brought out safely without any further trouble.
The last of the trapped men reached the advanced fresh-air base at 12.5 a.m. on Sunday, 10th September, the complete operation having taken approximately eight hours. Stage three was thus completed. Twenty brigades had been used in the evacuation. Excluding the Coatbridge Brigade which remained inbye throughout the whole operation, six brigades were constantly maintained within the danger zone which extended over a distance of 880 yards, the rescue men being spaced at intervals of twenty yards or so. This arrangement gave great encouragement to the men wearing the Salvus, an apparatus to which they were unaccustomed, as they made their way outbye to the advanced fresh-air base.
When the sets were brought in by the rescue brigades, Mr. Park took the precaution of examining them before they were fitted to the workmen. He was directly responsible for quite a number being discarded as defective for various reasons. Had this precaution not been taken it is more than likely that there would have been several casualties among the escaping men. In order to reduce the load, and at the same time to enable rescue men to bring in more than one Salvus set at a time, each Salvus apparatus was removed from its box-container. In transit over the rough ground and through the very restricted area of the connecting road, some of the sets unavoidably received rough treatment and, in consequence, many of them were leaking, thus considerably reducing the oxygen reserve.
When the last of the men had been rescued, Mr. Park organized a search with a rescue brigade to make sure that no one had been left behind. He was the last man to leave. There is no doubt that his action in joining the trapped men and his courage, calm demeanour and initiative in the face of a very ugly situation largely contributed to the success of the rescue operations. By voluntarily joining the trapped men, David Park deliberately took a very serious risk. Had the atmospheric conditions inside the Knockshinnoch Castle workings deteriorated faster than was actually the case - and it was always a possibility - he would have found it morally impossible to put on his breathing apparatus and leave the men. Nor could he be certain at that time that the moss would not take a fresh burst and overwhelm the whole party. Although the movement of the moss seemed to have slowed down at the time he descended the mine, there could be no guarantee that it might not surge forward again or even appear from an unsuspected direction.
When the overman, Andrew Houston, reached the surface he was able to indicate to those directing operations the places where the missing men had been working, or were last seen, prior to the inrush. Andrew Cunningham, the conveyor shifter, had already described to them where he had last seen two of the missing men, William Howatt and John Dalziel, in No. 1 Heading, and how sludge had burst into the outbye end of the South Boig Mine, cutting them off from the shaft. Moreover, the limits of the sludge as found by the trapped men were also known, as well as the steady deterioration of the state of the atmosphere in the West Mine area up to the time when the last of the trapped men left. In addition, an estimate of the volume of the crater had been made in order to judge the probable extent of the spread of the sludge underground. It was felt, too, that had any of the missing men escaped the inrush and taken refuge in the workings on the rise side of the No. 5 Heading, they would have been found by the exploring parties from the trapped men and would have been rescued along with them.
From a consideration of all this information, those responsible for directing the rescue operations, in consultation with representatives of all parties, came, with regret, to the inescapable conclusion that if, by chance, any of the missing men had not been overwhelmed by the inrush, they were bound to have reached a part of the mine which was not only too remote for rescue brigades to reach from the fresh-air base in Bank No. 6 workings but was, in any case, inaccessible. In consequence, after the 116 men from the inbye end of the West Mine had been brought out safely to the fresh-air base in Bank No. 6, the decision was taken, and rightly in my view, that no more rescue brigades should be sent in through the "escape road " and that efforts should now be concentrated on an attempt at further exploration by way of the "crater ", since the exposed end of the No. 5 Heading was seen to be open. It was thought that it might just be possible to get far enough down the No. 5 Heading and find an open road to the rise off the heading which would give access to the inbye workings in which a further search could be made for the missing men.
As previously described, work had begun to make the crater safe on the morning of the 8th September, and by the night of Sunday the 10th, two exploring parties had entered the workings and reached a point 800 feet down the No. 5 Heading. Unfortunately, heavy rain persisted and made still worse the already precarious state of the sides of the crater: masses of moss were slowly but continually closing in on the opening into the No. 5 Heading. This state of affairs, especially when one bears in mind the fact that the heading lay on a gradient of 1 in 2, that all its roof supports had probably been swept out and that with the subsequent falls it was now probably 13 to 14 feet high, rendered exploration in the heading a most dangerous and difficult affair.
In the meantime, exploration from the upcast shaft had shown that all roads leading inbye from it were blocked to the roof with peat, and that little or nothing could be done from this side. Efforts were also continuing to clear the Knockshinnoch Castle shaft, but here again it was realized that progress must be very slow indeed.
By Monday, 11th September, the position at the crater was such that a meeting was held of the representatives of all parties at which the decision was made that no further work should be carried out underground from the crater until its sides and the entrance to the No. 5 Heading were properly secured. By this time it was felt that there could be no hope of reaching or rescuing any of the 13 missing men and that there was no justification for risking loss of life among the rescuers. Subsequent events have served to confirm that the decision was correct. Although the Salvus was not an apparatus approved under the Rescue Regulations for use underground in mines, the decision to use it was not only triumphantly justified by the results but was right in principle.