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New South Wales keeps alive the memory of Mount Kembla

20 March 2009 1,322 views No Comment

Ross Fitzgerald recalls the mining disaster of 1902, the largest peacetime loss of life in mainland Australia’s European history until this year

The Victorian bushfire tragedy last month stopped a nation. The personal loss touched all Australians, while the heroism of those who assisted in the rescue efforts has justifiably received widespread praise.

It is perhaps a time to ponder the nature of such peacetime tragedies. One New South Wales group, the Mount Kembla Mining & Historical Society (otherwise known as Mt Kembla Mining Heritage Inc) has been tirelessly working to keep alive the public memory of a much earlier disaster that took place at the turn of the last century.

Prior to the February 2009 Victorian bushfires, the worst peacetime tragedy on Australian soil occurred at Mount Kembla, then and now a close-knit township on the south-west outskirts of Wollongong. Here in July 1902 a terrible gas explosion in the underground Mount Kembla Colliery killed 96 miners, men and boys, plus two rescuers. A further 152 were injured. In total, 33 women were made widows and 120 children became fatherless in the single, catastrophic event.

While the nature of the incident was very different to the recent raging bushfires, the fire that engulfed the miners deep underground created similar injuries and shock. Up until 2009, the death toll exceeded those lost in the 1887 Bulli Mine disaster (81 killed), the 1939 Black Friday bushfires (71 lives lost), the 1964 HMAS Voyager disaster (82 lives lost), Cyclone Tracy in 1974 (64 lives lost), the 1977 Granville train derailment (83 lives lost), and the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires (75 lives lost). At sea, peacetime shipwrecks accounted for even greater loss, Australia’s worst maritime disaster being the 1845 sinking of the Cataraqui off King Island, costing 400 lives.

The 31 July 1902 Mount Kembla disaster, like these other catastrophes, attracted significant outpourings of grief. The 100th anniversary of the explosion was recognised by the NSW Parliament in 2002 with a motion to support ongoing commemorative events and to recognise the dangers of the mining industry generally. Every year since July 1903 a memorial service has been held in the tiny village of Mount Kembla to remember those lost.

The Mount Kembla Mine Disaster Centenary Committee works tirelessly to remind the general public of the incident. Today a permanent museum display has been established as the Mount Kembla Heritage Centre (www.mtkembla.org.au). A Mount Kembla Mining Heritage Festival runs each year on the weekend closest to the 31st July anniversary.

The important work of the committee was highlighted last November by the presentation of a 2008 NSW Government Heritage Volunteer Award by minister for planning Kristina Keneally. The chairman of the Heritage Centre, Philip Donaldson, said the recognition was warmly received and would help those involved to continue their work and enhance the ‘Thunder in a Cloudless Sky’ exhibition.

The Mount Kembla mine disaster began when gas emitted from the coal seam was ignited by the naked flame of miners’ lamps. The local community heard the explosion and witnessed searing flames erupt from the mine heads. All topside structures were obliterated by the blast. Mining safety equipment was primitive at the time and the only way to reach those killed and injured was by walking into the warren of mine tunnels. Some 250 miners were in the tunnels. Workers in all-night shifts went into the catacombs, dying in significant numbers when hitting pockets of poisonous air. Catastrophe followed catastrophe. Animals were not immune, and several horses used to haul the coal skips were killed and buried. Many families lost several members: 17-year-old Eric Hunt survived, but his father, his brother and an uncle were killed.

The impact of the event was not lost on Gabrielle Kibble, chair of the NSW Heritage Council, when she visited the Mount Kembla Heritage Centre at the height of the recent Victorian fire tragedy. ‘I was struck by the similar impact the 1902 disaster had on the local community and the nation,’ Ms Kibble said. A poignant similarity was a photo of the then Australian cricket team playing a commemorative match, just as members of the Australian cricket team were showing their support at Kingslake. ‘What moved me most was the tireless work of the museum staff and community members who strive to keep the Mount Kembla incident in the minds of us all. It is so important and their work is recognised by relevant bodies such as the Heritage Council.’

In time, the 2009 Victorian bushfire tragedy will be the focus of similar commemorative events. The physical reminders of the disaster and rescue operations will also enter history and future museum displays. This is how we have traditionally honoured those lost in such tragic circumstances. Australian history has been dotted with awful examples of the terrible strength of nature, human suffering and plain bad luck. But we as a community must endeavour to honour those affected, so that these rites of passage are not relegated to the pages of history, but become part of our community’s sense of place.

As Philip Donaldson said: ‘It is with great sadness that as chairman of Mt Kembla Mining Heritage Inc that I acknowledge the unwanted title of the largest loss of life in an incident on the mainland in peace time in Australia’s European history passes from the Mt Kembla mine disaster of 1902 to the Victorian bushfires of 2009. I trust it will not move from there.’

Spectator Australia 20 March 2009