Torrential rain and COVID-19 restrictions could not stop a commemoration being held at St Augustine's Anglican Church, Bulli on Tuesday to remember the 81 men and boys who lost their lives in the Bulli Mine Disaster.
The explosion at the Old Bulli Mine on March 23, 1887 was at the time the worst industrial disaster in Australia's history and was only surpassed by the Mount Kembla Mine Disaster in 1902 that claimed the lives of 96 men and boys.
Black Diamond Heritage Centre president Kerrie Anne Christian said things had to be done differently this year because of COVID-19 and the rain but it was so important the commemoration service proceed to honour the memory of all the lives lost.
Last year it was unable to be held because NSW was in lockdown but this year the heritage centre was told it would be able to proceed.
"We were initially allowed to have 60 this year and then we were told we were allowed to have 120 but no choir so the Lamplighters were unable to sing," she said.
Students from local schools were unable to read out the names of all those who died and a wreath laying ceremony was unable to take place outside at the memorial monument.
But it was still very moving.
Rev Michael Williamson welcomed all present by reading psalm 139 at what he described as a significant gathering in memory of those lives lost.
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery expressed why it was so important to remember the explosion 134 years ago and the 81 people who died in a tight knit community that developed around the mine after it was established in 1862.
But the time of the explosion it employed around 100 men.
"They were miners in the prime of their lives supporting their families doing dangerous work at the time," he said.
"And we remember those who had the terrible task of retrieving bodies and identifying loved ones.
"The Bulli explosion must have had a terrible effect on the township at the time. The grief of losing a family member compounded by uncertainty of life without a wage earner."
Cr Bradbery said it was also important to remember the act of kindness and support that followed the disaster.
"It is good for us to gather and to recall the tragedy because it is part of our story, a part of our DNA and who were are in this city," he said.
"And it is important we thank and acknowledge those who keep the story alive."
Wayne Green, of NSW Mines and Rescue, spoke of how the lessons learned at Bulli helped improve mine safety
Mr Green said he was a fourth generation coal miner and his family were touched by the Mt Kembla mine disaster.
He said when we reflect back on that day in 1887 and how it left 50 women as widows and 180 children without a father it was difficult to imagine the horror of that time.
He said many questions were asked during that time of despair and the impact it had.
But by asking those questions and addressing them mine safety evolved significantly from those dark days and the lessons learned now meant the Illawarra has the safest mines in the world.
Mr Green also spoke about what the rescuers must have experienced when a series of rescue missions were attempted immediately after the explosion.
They would have entered the mine not knowing if there were any survivors or whether there was going to be another explosion
"They would have entered the mine without any breathing apparatus or any modern gas protection gear," he said.
Towards the end of Tuesday's service representatives from the Monument Restoration Committee, the Australiasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Industrial Heritage Group, The Lamplighters Choir, St Augustine's Anglican Church, and Dan Meehan, a descendant of William Williamson who was killed in the blast, read out the names of the lives lost as a result of the explosion and wreaths were laid inside the church.
Also present were the descendants of other victims and brothers Greg and Anthony Cope who were there to remember their great grandfather Herbert Cope who was the only survivor of the Bulli Mine Disaster.
Their late father Ken Cope used came to the annual commemoration for many years and they decided to continue his tradition.
Herbert Cope was 17 years old at the time and had been driving horses about 400 metres from the mine entrance when the explosion occurred at 2.30pm on March 23, 1887.
"He was blown over by the force of the blast and was later able to stagger out of the mine entrance to safety," Mr Green said.
Ms Christian said Mr Cope later survived another tragedy when his two brothers were killed in a boiler explosion at Woonona.
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