We care and we remember

Coalbrook, 21 Jan 1960

The date, 21 January 1960 remains etched in the minds of hundreds of families, members of the mining community and South Africans as one of the definitive historical moments in the country’s history.

The Clydesdale Coalbrook North colliery located near what is today Sasolburg, was at the time lauded as a highly productive and significant coal mine for its longevity in operation. Indeed, this tragedy is recognised as the worst mining disaster in the history of South Africa and ranks in the top 10 worst mining disasters ever globally.

On Thursday, 21 January 1960 at 4:20pm, the roof of one of the northern sections of the mine caved in. Mine management immediately instituted inquiries into the scope and impact of the cave–in.

During this inquiry a further cave-in took place at approximately 7:30 pm in the same locality from which mineworkers had been removed a short time before. The central portion of that section of the mine had completely collapsed and workers located at the eastern mine were trapped behind the cave-in.

The eastern portion of the mine was located approximately two miles away from the vertical shaft. The severity of the cave-in caused air pressure to build up in the shaft. The high air pressure damaged the main air conditioning fan, cutting off the fresh air supply. Immediate efforts to reach the trapped employees were hampered by the presence of a high concentration of methane gas as a result of the cave-in.

Rescue teams from surrounding mines and further afield were deployed to the scene. Over a period of 11 days, these rescue teams made use of the most advanced techniques and equipment of the time, desperately trying to reach survivors. A massive rescue drill imported from Texas was used, but could unfortunately not penetrate the dolerite that occurred naturally above the mining area.  

Boreholes that were able to reach the area indicated a major collapse of mine workings, flooding and high levels of methane

Tragically, 435 men, who were fathers, husbands, partners, colleagues and friends, were lost. 

Learnings

The tragedy that was Coalbrook will never be forgotten. But the lessons learned have ensured that the same events would not be repeated.

After a thorough examination by expert investigators, it was determined that the integrity of the supporting pillars designed to support the mine’s shaft had been compromised. Following an in-depth investigation, the Government Mining Engineer made a number of recommendations, many of which have subsequently been incorporated into law and codes of practice. These included recommendations relating to pillar dimensions, the bord width and height of workings, and of main travelling and ventilation roads. Findings also indicated that means should be provided to warn people in every section of the underground workings in the event of an emergency.

At the time, mining accidents occurred frequently at operations across the world. While the Coalbrook disaster was unforeseen, it became clear that drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure that all miners returned home at the end of every shift, at the end of every day.  Similar accidents had previously occurred in other countries including the United States and many lessons were learnt from their responses.

In the case of South Africa, following Coalbrook, in 1963 the Chamber of Mines established the Chamber of Mines Research Organization (COMRO), alongside the Coal Mines Research Controlling Council (CMRCC). These entities became responsible for pioneering research in mining and safety systems, not only for the coal industry but also deep level gold mining. By 1990, COMRO and its research projects were taken over by The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and its designated research departments. Between 1963 and 1990, COMRO, CSIR alongside various other research organisations reframed the workings of modern mines and became world-class industry leaders on the aspects of minerals, safety mechanisms and the operation thereof.

Many advancements were made in the fields of safety regulation and mining technology since then. Coalbrook continues to serve as a stark reminder of the importance of research and development. Possibly one of the most important consequences was the research undertaken to determine pillar strength scientifically, resulting in the development of the Salamon-Munro pillar formula, which remains relevant to this day.

Another noteworthy move was the addition to the arsenal of Mine Rescue Services of a custom-made colliery rescue drill that can be used to drill probe holes to extract people in the event of a mine collapse or other possible emergencies. The drill works at high-speed and can probe closed underground workings from which there is no egress, locate miners who might be trapped underground, and extract them in specially-designed capsules

A similar drill operated by a South African company has been used in previous international rescue operations such as Chile in 2010 and locally at Lily Mine, Barberton in 2016.

Most recently it was announced that the former COMRO facility will re-open under the stewardship of CSIR’s mining and mineral resources division, known as the Mining Precinct. The Mining Precinct sees a collaboration between the public and private sectors working under one roof to modernise the South African Mining industry into a leader of 21st Century methods that will encourage more technological integration as well as better safety initiatives and techniques to ensure the preservation of our future economy.

With every tragedy comes self-introspection on how to enforce and ensure every mine workers utmost safety. The South African mining industry will continue to be dedicated to the sustainable working conditions and practices that encompass a Zero Harm policy.

References and useful links