Monday, February 16, 2009

My Town Monday - The 100 year Anniversary of The Burns Pit Disaster

Today, Monday the 16th of February 2009 is the Hundred year anniversary of the tragic Burns Pit Disaster in Stanley County Durham. The reason that I have chosen this to report on is that our family lost relatives in this accident. We in fact lost two men, who were the brothers of my late mother in law. I say men but actually we lost two boys George who was 16 and Henry who was the youngest killed in the accident aged just 13 years old. I find it hard to believe that at age 13 he was less than a year older than my daughter Beth is now. Life must have been very hard for them.

I have taken extracts from an account by a local historian called Jack Hair.
The Explosions.
On the morning of 16th February 1909, life was going on about the town of Stanley in the normal way with no clues as to how that day would change the lives of so many people. At 3.45pm. There was the sound of a muffled explosion which stopped the town in its tracks. People were trying to identify where the bang had come from. Fifty seconds later, there was a second explosion, much louder than the first, with flames and smoke shooting into the wintry sky. It was now obvious, it was The Burns Pit. There were screams of fear as the women folk feared the worst. There was an instant movement of people toward the pit head, all with the same thoughts in mind, what had happened? how bad was it?. At first there were dozens of people. Within minutes there were hundreds and in no time at all, there were thousands. The swelling crowd soon realised the main damage must be underground. There seemed to be no organised plan of action.
A message was sent to the Louisa Colliery for rescue equipment to clear the pit head. Mining engineer Col Blackett of Sacriston was informed and he soon arrived. Ship makers Armstrong's of the Tyne were approached for breathing apparatus and men and they were granted at once. Rescue workers arrived from many other local collieries. Doctors and nurses from Newcastle Infirmary and HMS Calliope from the Tyne also arrived. People throughout the town worried about their loved ones and of their chances of survival as there was no news.
The nearest to the explosion had been colliery engineer Ralp Stephenson. Fuses at the switchboard had blown indicating the air current underground had been cut off. The cages had stuck. Stephenson went over to the North Shaft and noticed damage to the doors. Many boards around the sides of the shaft had been blown off. The quivering pulley ropes were still in their wheels. Stephenson peered down the shaft and there below in the belly of the pit was a glowing red mass of light. It looked like a volcano waiting to erupt. He stood back to yell a warning, and at that point the second explosion tore up the shaft blowing the headgear and shooting up into the sky. The flames were followed by a dense black smoke. Stephenson was thrown to the ground and his cheeks seared with the intense heat. After a few seconds, the dense smoke was sucked back down into the pit. This was bad news for those below.
Attempts were made to clear the headgear so as to reach the underground seams. However, unknown to them at this time, many lay dead or seriously injured. Down below, the explosion had gone its full course. In the Townley Seam of 123 fathoms 63 were dead In the Tilley Seam of 133 fathoms 18 were dead In the Busty Seam 33 were dead In the Brockwell Seam of 163 fathoms 48 were dead Due to there being no counting system; no one knew just how many men were underground. Incredibly, there was still life down there in those dark, dank, stinking gas filled galleries.
Mark Henderson, an experienced deputy soon realised the danger and gathered those around him in the Tilley Seam. He led them from the onrushing after damp (gas) to a small gallery where there was a pocket of fresh air. There were 34 of them. They only had two lamps between them. Two of these men panicked and made a dash for the shaft. Five others joined them, and more would have followed but for Henderson persuading them to stay where they were. Within yards of the safety of the gallery, all seven died of the poisonous gas. If only they had listened. The rest of the men were cold, in shock and fearful of their lives. Henderson did all he could to re-assure them. One of the men began humming the Hymn "Lead Kindly Light". Salvation Army member Bob Harrison joined in with the words, and soon the others joined in. Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on, the night is dark and I am far away from home. Can you picture this scene? Before the hymn had ended, 14 years old Jimmy Gardner, very badly injured, lost his fight for life, and died.
After many hours, Henderson realised the air was getting foul, and decided to attempt to see if he could find a way to get the men out. He told them of his plan and with his mouth masked against the gas; he stepped out into the gas filled passageway. Though the air was still heavy, he noticed it was beginning to clear a little although he still was forced to the ground a couple of times. He soon passed the seven men who had earlier tried to reach the shaft, all dead. After crawling for almost a quarter of a mile over stones, coal, wooden props and dead bodies, he eventually reached the shaft. He used the phone and you can imagine the shock at the surface when the phone rang. "Hello, whose there? How many are you? Henderson replied, "There's 26 of us down here, can you get us ou?” All rescue work was then concentrated on the Tilley Seam, and after 14 hours underground, they were rescued. It was later discovered that the phone he used was the only phone in the colliery not destroyed by the explosion.
By the time all the miners were accounted for the number of dead amounted to 168.
Many men were later interred in two local churches, mass graves were dug and the burials took place over three days the following week.
This photo shows the 'Death March' through Stanley.

Another view of the mourners on 21st of February 1909.
Tomorrow we are visiting family in Stanley and although we will miss the memorial services planned for today, we hope to be able to look at an exhibition at Beamish museum.


Jenn Jilks said...

It is important to note that the 'good old days' were not always so.

Sepiru Chris said...

Interesting post, Lyzzydee. Thanks.

Reb said...

Wow. Powerful post.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow. I had never heard about this. So sad to hear that children were lost.

Raymonde said...

Thank you for the history lesson. Have a good time catching up with relatives. Love. xxx

Mary said...

Thank you, for sharing this. I'm so sorry to hear that your family lost those boys.

debra said...

A tragic story. Thanks for sharing it.

LuLu said...

What a tragic event and like you say, it's amazing to think that lads as young as 13 were already working down the pits.

Travis Erwin said...

Tragic story. What set off the explosion?

Barbara Martin said...

Lyzzydee, interesting post about the mines. I hope your family gathering went well.

Debbielou said...

I remember you mentioning this to me a very long time ago but seeing the photos and reading the story makes it seem even more real x

Kim Marie said...

Sometimes history is sad, like this, but I love your history lessons nonetheless!
Kim Marie

Barrie said...

How very very sad. I wonder what started the explosion?