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The history of Mines Rescue work goes back to the earliest days of mining, for explosions, fires and inundations were always an integral part of coal mining. There is evidence of such occurrences when coal was mined from shallow "bell" pits and small surface adits, but as the numbers of men involved were usually small, no great publicity resulted. As mines became deeper, with more extensive workings and larger numbers of men employed, there was an increasing number of underground disasters, some of which caused the deaths of very large numbers of men, and highlighted the necessity for men to be trained in mines rescue work.

In those early days, there was never a lack of volunteers to help in an attempt to save life, or to recover bodies, or to save a pit by taking part in fire fighting operations, or to seal off, following a fire or explosion. There are numerous references in accident reports to the bravery of such volunteers and many of those who took part lost their lives. These men had no special training and had no apparatus, which would enable them to pass through poisonous or irrespirable atmospheres in comparative safety. They only had an inherent resolve to go to the help of their fellow men irrespective of the dangers involved.

It was in the 19th century, particularly in the second half of that period, and in the early years of the 20th century, that the largest number of very serious disasters occurred and, indeed, rarely a year went by without such an occurrence. During that period, designers were attempting to produce an apparatus that could be used to save the lives of men involved in an underground disaster and thus originated the term rescue apparatus. Unfortunately, the early hopes of saving lives on any scale were not realised because the majority of the victims of such disasters were killed outright, or died from burns, or from carbon monoxide poisoning, shortly after the explosions or fires. There are many instances on record in later years where lives were saved by the use of rescue apparatus, but the numbers were relatively small when compared with the thousands of lives lost due to explosions and fires. One wonders, in retrospect, how many lives might have been saved had the early development work been in connection with an efficient self rescuer, which almost certainly would have allowed some, at least, of the victims to reach safety before being overcome by carbon monoxide.

After a number of prototype designs both in this country and abroad, the honour of designing the first self contained breathing apparatus, which was of any practical use, went to Henry A. Fleuss who produced a compressed oxygen apparatus which was the forerunner of the present day "Proto" apparatus. This apparatus was used successfully in the aftermath of the Seaham Colliery explosion and fire in 1880 when 164 men lost their lives. However, little further progress was made for some considerable time, because it was realised that a breathing apparatus was of relatively little benefit in an emergency without trained men to use it and that men could not be effectively trained unless there were suitable places to carry out the training and maintain and service the apparatus. Trained instructors were also required to give the necessary instruction.

Pit Terminology - Glossary