Appin mine blast: a day that shook our world

The night of Tuesday, July 24, 1979, shook not only the small mining community of Appin but the entire Illawarra, with the region's families dependent on their men going underground day after day.The blast in the Australian Iron and Steel (now BHP Billiton) mine left 38 children fatherless and lives tattered.The explosion was ignited by a rush of methane gas around 11pm in K panel, a remote tunnel of the mine about 3km underground.

  • Full list of miners killed on the Southern CoalfieldsTen miners died in the crib room while enjoying tea and sandwiches, and another four were found varying distances away.The recovery involved more than 100 volunteers and it was not for 26 hours that the bodies were recovered. Rescuers risked their own lives as they picked through twisted metal and dirt near deadly pockets of carbon monoxide and methane.At the time of the explosion, 45 men were underground.MP for Cunningham Sharon Bird was 16 at the time and lived at Appin Mine on "Colliery Row" with her family.Her father was a mine official and, like the entire mining community, Ms Bird's family was hit hard emotionally. They had lost three of their own in the Mt Kembla disaster of 1902."To me it's one of the reasons I'm so passionate about occupational health and safety," Ms Bird said."I know families whose dad didn't come home."Mining has meant so much for this region, but it's certainly a job with risks."An inquiry, which took more than a year to finalise, found that the explosion occurred because of a lack of ventilation, causing a massive build up of methane in what was a notoriously gassy mine.Gas in the starter box of a fan is believed to have triggered the explosion.Judge Alf Goran made a number of recommendations, which led to more sophisticated checking equipment and procedures.He also cleared all men in the mine of any blame.United Mine Workers district check inspector Garry Horne said huge safety improvements had occurred in the three decades since the tragedy.New technology made the assessment of risk a more scientific task."(A similar disaster) is far less likely," he said."In NSW, we have the safest mining in the world and it requires input from the Government, companies, unions and workers to keep it that way."Certainly the mines on the South Coast are extremely gassy ... so the potential is there if the systems in place don't work or people take shortcuts."The Mercury led the coverage of the disaster in 1979, producing several updated additions on the morning of July 25."The loss suffered at Appin is no parochial tragedy," the paper said in its editorial."It is a national loss, all the more dramatic for the suddenness and terrifying force. "The people of the Illawarra will feel bound to share in the ... obligation of caring for those left behind."For full coverage of the Appin mine disaster, see Friday’s Mercury.

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