A gas outburst left seven men dead at Collinsville mine. This eerie reminder of complacency in the industry should serve as a future warning for all coal mine workers. We ask – WAS IT AN EXPLOSION WAITING TO HAPPEN?
Twenty-eight years were to elapse after 1893 before the Eclipse death roll of seven was dreadfully surpassed in the Queensland coal industry by the Mt. Mulligan disaster in 1921. Then, after Mt.Mulligan – though the remorseless succession of fatalities and multiple fatalities continued year by year in the coalmines in Queensland, as elsewhere – another 33 years were to pass before the Eclipse toll was grimly matched by a new Queensland mine disaster, at the Collinsville State mine on 13 October 1954. On that Wednesday, during afternoon shift, a gas outburst – later said to have been almost pure (about 98 per cent) carbon dioxide, CO2 – left seven men dead from asphyxiation.
The seven Collinsville men who died were Alex Parkinson (who had been Collinsville miners branch scrutineer and whose father, Bill Parkinson, was a former branch treasurer), Peter Miller (a cousin of Queensland miners vice-president Tom Millar), Henry Petersen (“Pike” Peterson, brother of Chick Petersen who later became Queensland miners secretay), Frederick Ernest Walker (“Mick” Walker, miners branch assistant secretary and step-brother of branch chairman John Currie), James Reid Logan, Arthur Shrubsole and Herbert Ruff. Two other men – Robert Munro and J. A. Baker – were severely affected by the gas but they survived and were taken to hospital to recover.
There were fateful chances which determined the composition of the list of victims. Pike Petersen was one of those for whom an if only would have meant survival. Years later, his brother Chick Petersen (who had been on day shift in the mine on the fatal day and who had finished only about an hour and a half before the gas outburst) recalled the circumstances around Pike Petersen that day: “Our mother used to wait on the verandah of her home in Sonoma Street and wave to Pike as he went past on his bike on the way to work each day. On this particular day, she was especially keen to catch him, because she wanted to tell him that she’d just heard that a ticket which Pike and I had in the Golden Casket had won £50. But somehow, on that day, she missed him. If she had seen him and told him about the £50 win, there’s no way that Pike would have gone to work that day – he’d have stayed in town to celebrate for sure.”
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Fate also, in at least one instance, worked the other way. Ken Ney was supposed to be on that afternoon shift at the State mine on 13 October 1954. But, as he recalled it at Goonyella in 1983, “that day was Joe Gibbons’ birthday and he and I celebrated it instead of going to work.”
(Twenty-one years later, after he had moved from Collinsville and was working at Kianga, Ken Ney and his two sons Bill and Wayne were asked if they wanted to go out to the Kianga mine on a Saturday afternoon to help seal an underground heating; they decided not to go there – and that was the afternoon when an explosion killed all 13 men who were underground: “perhaps it was some intuition or perhaps just luck – even though I was born on a Friday the 13th, in 1926.”)
Then, too, if the Collinsville gas outburst had been just hours earlier, the victims would have been men who were working on day shift. Among those who were on day shift were branch chairman John Currie, branch secretary Jim Nisbet, Chick Petersen (later Scottville branch secretary and then Queensland secretary) and branch committee member Wal Dawson: Wal Dawson recalled in 1983 that he and Jimmy Ramage had been on the loader that day and the two men who took over from them on the following shift were Mick Walker and “Hoppy” Shrubsole, both of whom were killed by the gas outburst.
The Collinsville gas outburst occurred at about 5.50 on that Wednesday afternoon of 13 October 1954, in No. 1 tunnel. This was the tunnel which had been mechanised, against the opinion of miners and of at least some others that mechanisation should have been in No. 2 tunnel instead. The disaster came after protracted disputation on various issues between the mineworkers on the one hand and, on the other hand, the Government and its Mines Department chiefs, including State mines general manager Athol Lightfoot. The Government had even refused a union request that Miners Federation NSW Northern District check inspector Jack Barrett, with his experience of mechanisation in NSW and in other countries, should be allowed to make an inspection of the Collinsville mine.
This background contributed after the disaster to the special bitterness on the miners’ part and to the sharpness of allegations by them against the Government. The Page 1 story of Common Cause of 23 October, for instance, made a charge of “gross negligence,” and said:
“The disaster followed a long agitation around conditions at the mine – a story which is an indictment of the whole attitude of the Queensland Government to the Collinsville mine.”
Various miners were quoted as alleging prior indications of possible trouble, and miners District check inspector Jack Pocock told a mass meeting or Collinsville men after the disaster: “No one could say the Government was not made fully aware of conditions following the introduction of mechanisation.”
Survivor’s accounts of the gas outburst
Men who had been in the mine at the time of the gas outburst told dramatic stories of their experiences and recollections; for instance, with Common Cause editor Edgar Ross having gone to Collinsville, the extensive Common Cause coverage (23 October) of the disaster included these quotes:
- THOMAS, horse driver: “A terrific blow came from the coal face about 150 feet away. There was a howling gale of wind coming from down the dip. Then men came running out crying: ‘Get for your life!’ In a matter of seconds, the dust was so thick that I could not see the men’s lights. I decided to release my horse but the dust was so thick that I could not see it. I left it and ran for my life, choking from the gas.”
- WHITE, timberman: “We were having tea in the crib room about 300 feet from the face in the dip end when the smell of gas came towards us, our eyes began to sting, and a sort of whirlwind started to come towards us.”
BERNARD FORDHAM: “It was as if a shot had been fired, then I felt a terrific gust of wind, my eyes began to burn, my breath was cut off, and the smell was indescribably horrible. I staggered out to fresh air, but later went back to try and recover the other men.”
- A. BAKER, who was taken to hospital: “I was timbering with my mates when I saw a haze coming towards us. One of my mates said: ‘Who fired that shot?’ Then we began to feel our throats burning and eyes watering, and had difficulty in getting our breath. I don’t remember much after that. All I know is I stumbled up away from the dip end until I must have collapsed. They say my eyes looked like raw steak.”
ROBERT MUNRO, who also was taken to hospital: “I saw a sort of rolling vapor coming towards me… It caught my breath and sent my head spinning… I could not see anything for a while as the cloud was so thick… I realised I had to get out, so I ran and ran until I collapsed. I remember no more until I woke up in hospital.”
Ray (“Sugar”) Brunker had reached the age of 18 in the week before the disaster. On that fatal afternoon shift on 13 October, Ray Brunker and Jack Thomas were horse-driving underground. Ray Brunker was taking crowns and tops to a cut-through above where the gas outburst occurred. He was taking a double load of crowns and one of the loads got caught in an old bogged cutter. So Ray Brunker took one load in, went back for the other – and then the gas outburst occurred in the location where Ray Brunker had been only minutes before.
Ray Brunker said years later: “I heard someone – I’m sure it was Pike Petersen, who was later found dead – yell out: ‘Run for your lives!’ And we did. I was in good nick: I was playing football in those days. Jack Thomas had only half a lung but he was right up behind me, so he was going pretty well too. I didn’t know where we were running; we must have been following the air. All the doors were blown open.” Both Ray Brunker and Jack Thomas made it to safety.
Branch chairman John Currie, having finished his day shift, had a few beers and was on his way home when (as he recalled it in 1983), “young Terry McCarthy rushed up to me and said that men were trapped underground by some sort of explosion.” John Currie rushed back to the mine. Manager Albert Wittmanley and acting under manager George Templeton (under manager Les Baker was on holidays) were already there; another who arrived there for rescue work was Scottville manager Ron Spiers.
Albert Winstanley, recalling that evening, said years later that he and George Templeton (a brother of former miners branch secretary Snow Templeton) were the first into the mine and by 11 o’clock that night, all seven bodies had been recovered. Meanwhile, miners branch secretary Jim Nisbet had been manning the union phone, keeping Queensland miners vice-president Tom Millar at Booval and others informed as the grim news unfolded.
John Currie said that the body of his step-brother Mick Walker had been among the first to be recovered: “Roley McDowall, a former Bundaberg lifesaver, tried to revive him, but it couldn’t be done.” John Currie recalled trouble with proto suits, but said that breaking up of the gas by the ventilation helped the rescue work.
Among those who went into the mine that night was Walter Nisbet, brother of Jim Nisbet. Walter Nisbet at that time was an electrical trades assistant and he went underground in case the gas outburst had affected electrical installations in any way that could create new dangers.
“A terrific blow came from the coal face about 150 feet away. There was a howling gale of wind coming from down the dip. Then men came running out crying: ‘Get for your life!’”
Government’s renewed hostility following the gas outburst
Miners union officials, after returning to Brisbane from their grim visit to Collinsville, secured from Mines Minister Riordan an agreement that No. 2 tunnel – which had been closed after mechanisation of No. 1 – would be reopened with an initial 15 pairs at the face, as soon as necessary equipment had been installed, and operations then resumed there. But, from then on, there were clear signs of renewed hostility on the part of the Gair Government towards the Collinsville mineworkers.
These signs emerged over the matter of what form of inquiry was to be conducted after the disaster. Initially, there was to be a Warden’s inquiry, on which miners would be represented before any wider investigation was undertaken. Such a Warden’s inquiry actually began, with an opening sitting on 15 November and an adjournment then to 22 November. But – without consultation with the miners union – the Gair Government on 18 November abruptly introduced, and put through all its stages, a Bill to prevent further proceedings by that inquiry, on the grounds that a Royal Commission was to be set up.
The miners union was certainly not averse to a full inquiry into the Collinsville mine: it had, in fact, previously sought such an inquiry, only to have the Government refuse the request. But the circumstances in which the Government was now aborting the Warden’s inquiry, and the Government’s lack of candor around the proposition for a Royal Commission, aroused miners’ lively suspicions. The Queensland miners executive described the Government’s suddenly-produced Bill as being “panic legislation, designed to protect the Government as owners of the Collinsville State mine,” and it said that the way in which the Bill was rushed through –
– “strongly suggests that… the Government anticipated and feared the findings of the selected experienced miners and was determined at all costs to circumvent the Mining Warden’s inquiry… No valid reason has been advanced to justify the Government’s departure from its declared policy that the Mining Warden’s inquiry should precede an open inquiry which would then investigate all other matters outside the scope of the Mining Warden’s inquiry.
“In these circumstances, and in the light of the Mines Minister’s refusal of a Royal Commission prior to the disaster, we are forced to the conclusion that the Government has an ulterior motive in setting up a Royal Commission at this stage.”
As soon as they heard of the Government’s action, Collinsville and Scottville miners stopped work and there were 24-hour protest stops at some 30 other mines throughout Queensland.
On the day on which the Gair Government sprang its unheralded new Bill into Parliament, the annual Queensland Trade Union Congress was in progress at the Brisbane Trades Hall and it held an urgent discussion around this Government move. In this discussion, Queensland miners vice-president Tom Millar told the Congress that the union had wanted the chance to put to a Warden’s inquiry – including men experienced in the industry – its allegations about factors in the disaster. The Congress elected a deputation of five, including Tom Millar and Collinsville miner Wal Dawson, to ask Premier Gair to drop the Bill and proceed with the Warden’s inquiry. A phone message was sent to the Premier about the deputation but, when no reply came, the deputation went to Parliament House and, through Jim Donald MLA, tried to see Mr. Gair. Instead, they got a message that Mr. Gair could not see them before 4.30 that afternoon but that, anyway, no good purpose would be served because “the Bill is going through.”
The Trade Union Congress protested about Mr. Gair’s refusal to hear the trade union movement’s viewpoint before putting the legislation through, and it urged that the Government should now include on the projected Commission the Warden (Mr. Verry SM) and an experienced miner selected from a panel nominated by the union. This Congress motion, which was moved by Queensland miners president Tom Millar and seconded by Boilermakers State secretary Jack Egerton, was transmitted to the Government, but Gair & Co., in effect, ignored it.
Doubt’s suspicion and resentment to cancel inquiry
After the Government’s arbitrary decision to cancel the Warden’s inquiry and to replace it with a Royal Commission – with the Commission’s members to be chosen by the Government – Common Cause (27 November 1954) said that “the atmosphere in Queensland is electric with doubts and suspicions… Widespread resentment was expressed in many protest stoppages in the coalfields.”
The November 1954 meeting of the miners Queensland Board of Management drew an unfavorable contrast between the delays and other aspects of the Government’s response on the Collinsville disaster, as against what had been done after the 1921 Mt. Mulligan disaster. In the case of Mt. Mulligan, a Royal Commission was set up by legislation four days after the disaster and it made an inspection at Mt. Mulligan within a fortnight of the explosion. In the case of Collinsville, over a month elapsed before legislation was introduced for a Royal Commission, and six weeks after the disaster there was still no guarantee of any immediate proceedings.
The union asked that, in keeping with the precedent set in the case of Mt. Mulligan, a miners union official, to be selected from a panel of four nominated by the union, should be one of the Commissioners. It also asked that union costs in connection with the Commission be provided by the Government. The union’s efforts to have the Government meet union representatives on these propositions were evaded by the Government. (The same Board of Management meeting urged the need for amendments to the Coal Mines Regulation Acts; said that it feared for miners’ safety and well-being because of authorities’ failure to enforce compliance with existing requirements, and called on members to demand full enforcement.)
Ignoring all the representations for inclusion of a union man among the Commissioners, the Government on 2 December set up a Royal Commission consisting of Judge Sheehy, Walter Scott and Septimus Flowers and with Solicitor-General W.E. Ryan appointed to assist the Commission. The Government also included in the Commission’s terms of reference the question of whether “the use of the said mine [the Collinsville State mine] should be discontinued.”
Royal Commission seeks answers to ‘gas outburst’
The Collinsville Royal Commission held its first session in Brisbane on 7 December and adjourned to Bowen, to hear evidence from Collinsville witnesses. Reporting for the national communist weekly Tribune on the first four days of the Bowen sittings, Pete Thomas wrote:
“Every day, unionists, housewives and tragic relatives of the disaster victims thronged the public gallery. They sat tensely, following every word…
“The four days were packed with drama. There was the grim recital by survivors of what had happened down the mine about 5.30pm on 13 October, when seven perished: the appearance of a grey haze, billowing towards them; a sudden breeze which grew, one said, to a howling gale; the shouts of warning; the desperate efforts, in the darkness underground, to race from the gas that clutched at lungs.
“There were stories, told in matter-of-fact terms, of mineworkers’ heroism – of men who went back into the gas for those who had succumbed; of what Mr. Ryan called ‘that courage, presence of mind and resolution which is very often displayed in mining accidents’…”
Occasionally, there was a brief relief from the tension. For instance 18-year-old survivor Ray (“Sugar”) Brunker was pressed by Judge Sheehy to give a precise description of the haze at the time of the outburst. After a succession of questions on details of this, Sugar Brunker became exasperated and retorted: “I didn’t notice. I didn’t stand there gawking at it.” Sugar Brunker recalled years later that he had – understandably, as a teenager – been nervous when he was called to the witness box in those unfamiliar and even intimidating surroundings, “so, after I’d been going for a bit, Septimus Flowers [one of the Commissioners] told me: ‘Speak up; the shorthand writer can’t make a shorthand note of a nod’.”
Another survivor, horse driver Jack Thomas, was asked what he did at the time of the outburst. He said: “When the experienced men were running up out of the dip singing out ‘Get for your life;’ I thought it was time for inexperienced miners to start running too.”
Unlike the Mt. Mulligan Royal Commission in 1921, which completed its report within ten weeks of the disaster having occurred, the Collinsville Royal Commission dragged on through months of 1955; it included 13 days of hearing evidence in Bowen and 66 days in Brisbane, with eight days of concluding addresses.
Much of the time of the hearing was taken up by counsel such as T. D. McCawley QC (for former State mines general manager Athol Lightfoot) pursuing red-baiting and union-baiting courses. The Miners Federation’s Central Council therefore in March 1955 urged that the Federation’s representatives at the Commission “continue to ensure that blame for the disaster and the unsatisfactory condition of the mine is sheeted home to those responsible, to answer the slanders on our members, and to resist any attempt to use the unsatisfactory condition of the mine to hand it over to private enterprise…” Later in 1955, the Queensland miners convention voted a 2½ per cent levy towards union costs in the Commission and around the convention itself.
It was not until the beginning of 1956 that the Royal Commission’s report emerged. On the October 1954 disaster, it found that “there was no omission to take reasonable precautions to avoid that disaster in the course of mining operations in the said tunnel No. 1” and that “the conduct of the owner, the management or any employee was not a contributing cause of the said disaster.” The report said that the outburst – which dislodged 400 to 600 tons of coal – was unprecedented in Queensland coalmines and there had been only two prior outbursts in Australia, at NSW’s Metropolitan (Helensburgh) mine in 1897 and 1925. Less than two months after the Collinsville disaster, there was – on 2 December 1954 – yet another gas outburst at the Helensburgh mine; this killed two miners.
The report said also that, for the whole of its working life, the Bowen seam of the State mine had been giving off CO2 (carbon dioxide); this gas, when given off, had become a constituent of black damp, which had been prevalent in the mine during its life. The Commission’s report said that, “with one exception, the witnesses stated that the [Collinsville] outburst was never anticipated, foreseen or expected.” The Commission quoted an assertion by miners branch secretary Jim Nisbet that “a person on the field about two or three weeks before the disaster, with knowledge of outbursts elsewhere, seeing what was taking place at the Dip, may have got an idea [of what might happen];” but the Commission claimed that this was “hindsight,” and it said that it believed that features such as the emanation of CO2 and the bubbling through accumulated water in lower workings “were looked upon as peculiarities of the mine and that they were in no way regarded as a portent of trouble to come.”
Royal Commission of inquiry “A whitewash”
Miners reacted caustically to aspects of the Commission’s report on its various terms of reference. At its meeting in February 1956, the Miners Federation’s Central Council spoke of the Commission’s “falling over backwards to whitewash the Government for its obvious responsibility for the conditions that developed at Collinsville” and the Central Council referred to what it called “ludicrous conclusions” and an “inconceivable finding” by the Commission. The Central Council declared that the need for substantial amendments to the Coal Mines Regulation Acts “was substantiated by evidence submitted” and it called on the Queensland District to continue its campaign around this.
The Central Council was gratified at the Commission’s recommendation for continuing the Collinsville State mine. This was seen as a major vindication of the union standpoint, as against Government indifference or even antagonism. This Government attitude had been displayed once again in an episode which occurred in the course of the Commission’s inquiry. A dispute arose in early 1955 over the rate of pay for particular clearing and timbering work which the Commission had asked to be done in the Collinsville mine’s No. 1 tunnel; when the department refused to negotiate with the union over this dispute, work at the mine stopped. At that stage, someone asked Premier Gair whether the Government might decide to close the mine pending the Commission’s eventual recommendations. Replied Mr. Gair, coldly: “That’s virtually the position now.” As things turned out, whatever might have been Mr. Gair’s predisposition on the matter, a settlement was reached on the pay issue and work resumed at the Collinsville mine.
There was special gratification in Collinsville-Scottville over the recommendation by the Commission that the Collinsville State mine be continued. The continuation of the mine became even more significant towards the end of 1957, when the Mt. Mulligan State mine was closed and men from there were able to be absorbed at Collinsville.
But – as already told in the chapter on the Collinsville State mine – the renewal of the State mine’s term of existence was to prove only temporary. In May 1961, the Nicklin Country-Liberal Party Government arbitrarily and brutally closed the Collinsville State mine. The State mine had been allowed to outlive its victims of October 1954 only by less than seven years.
“The report said that the gas outburst – which dislodged 400 to 600 tons of coal – was unprecedented in Queensland coalmines and there had been only two prior gas outbursts in Australia…”
An extract from The Coalminers of Queensland, Volume 1: CREATING THE TRADITIONS, a CFMEU publication written by Pete Thomas.