The Michael Colliery Disaster, September 9, 1967
A Report by Eric Savage of the Mines Rescue Service, Cowdenbeath Rescue Station
In the early hours of a Saturday coaling shift at the Michael Colliery, Fife, Scotland, on September 9, 1967, more than 300 miners were working underground. By the end of that long day, nine men had died in one of the largest underground fires in British mining history. Three of those miners could not be reached and their bodies were never brought back.
Perhaps we should have foreseen such a tragedy coming. This was the third major underground fire to happen in the month of September during the 1950s and 60s. At Cresswell Colliery, Nottingham, 80 men died on September 26, 1950. At Auchengeich Colliery, Lanarkshire, September 18, 1959, 47 men lost their lives. And all three disasters involved highly flammable materials.
The most dangerous of all was polyurethane foam, sprayed into the coal seams to stop air leakage and at very high risk of spontaneous combustion. As well as that hazard, rubber belts were used on the coal conveyors and the fans.
That morning at Michael Colliery, a spontaneous combustion in the coal seam ignited the lining of polyurethane in the Dysart Main Seam Roadway. The roadway was close to the No 3 Shaft which cast down to the heart of the colliery. The air from this shaft was pumped to all the mine workings, which were extensive with long and severe gradients caused by many years of mining. There were 311 men working underground at the time.
I was an instructor at Cowdenbeath Rescue Station and had worked for eight years in the rescue service. In the early hours, the station's internal telephone rang, startling me out of my sleep. I glanced at my wristwatch as I picked up the receiver. It was 05.03am. Even before the station supervisor spoke, I had a feeling it was serious.
Briefly he told me that a fire had broken out at Michael Colliery and that we were needed at the mine. Our house was next to the station. I reported and grabbed my underground clothes. I headed for the No 1 call car driven by assistant superintendent Frank Gibb. By 5.15 am we had left the station. The supervisor W. Thomson had already contacted the Central Rescue Station at Coatbridge to let them know we were on our way and that we would update them when we got there.
The mine was about 15 miles away. We arrived at 5.35 am. I went to the mine manager's officer. He had just arrived and was being updated by the deputy manager. I asked if it was Dysart Dip 1 A Main Gate. No, they said, it was more serious. More than one Fresh Air Base would be needed. I was instructed to prepare my rescue teams and report back in 15 minutes to be given the sites of operations. A second van arrived from Cowdenbeath Rescue Station with the superintendent and station instructor George Herriot. We were told more than 220 men were unaccounted for. At 5.50am our superintendent called Coatbridge to urgently send more rescue teams.
Word came through from underground at No 2 Shaft; W. Semple Jnr. had 90 men and all were safe.
Back at the manager's office I was instructed to take a rescue team to the Sea Mine entrance of the No 3 Shaft Area where men from the Four Foot Seam were in a severely stressed situation and 14 men were missing. Our team would be myself, Captain William Shaw and four part-time rescue brigade men. On our way to the shaft, we heard two men were unaccounted for in the Dysart Dip areas, known as the Dysart Dooks. I told George Herriot to take the next team to that area.
At 6am I headed underground and as I made my way across the surface gantry, 50 men came to the surface. I made for the Sea Mine and another 50 men were waiting to get to the top and safety. Now 190 men were known to be safe.
William Shaw's team left the Fresh Air Base at 6.10am to investigate the entry to the Sea Mine. At 6.20am they returned. They could not get further than 100 yards, the smoke was too dense and visibility was nil. It was obvious that the smoke in the Sea Mine would have to be re-routed. Shaw and his team would be supervised by production manager J.S. Wilson as to which doors at the Loader Mine would be opened. But the ventilation circuit alterations made no difference at the Sea Mine because of alterations to the main surface fan.
At 8.30am the rescue team, led by W. Kennedy, found the body of Philip Thomson on the Cable Belt Dook. There was no sign of his workmate James McKay. The smoke in this roadway was very dense and it was impossible to see anything.
By about 9.15am the atmosphere in the Sea Mine improved and a rescue brigade led by J.S. Moyes went into the Redd Road Junction where he saw four bodies. The Coatbridge rescue teams recovered five bodies between 9.40 and 10.25am. But there were still four men missing, Andrew Taylor, Hugh Gallacher, J.C. McEneamy and J. McArthur.
At 10.30am the search for the missing men began again. A rescue team led by W. Aitken left the Fresh Air Base to make a recce of the Four Foot District while visibility in the Sea Mine roadway was clear. By 11am it was a blackout in the roadway and I was concerned for the team's safety. I sent the standby rescue team captained by J. Malcolm to bring back the first team, but they couldn't reach them.
At 11.30am Aitken's rescue team returned to the Fresh Air Base. I knew that Malcom's team would have to return the same way; Sea Mine, Four Foot Main Gate, Coalface, Tailgate. I began to ring those underground phones on the colliery's internal system. I kept ringing. Finally Malcom picked up the receiver at the Tailgate telephone. We had practiced a system of emergency communication back at the rescue station. If any of the rescue team spoke, wearing breathing apparatus, he risked drawing in poisonous gases and falling unconscious. This practice stood us in good stead. I told him that the other team had returned to base. I then said, 'please return to base, conditions are not good, smoke is very dense. Do you understand?' He gave four hoots on his signal hooter, our signal for yes.
The conditions were unprecedented. The air was so foul that it limited how long we could stay underground before we had to get back to the surface to change our breathing apparatus. The heat and humidity was so intense that there was a serious risk of heat stroke. Visibility was zero because of the smoke and the rescue teams were walking long distances on some very steep gradients.