The disaster

The fire which broke out on the 700ft level of the North Lyell mine shortly before 11am on October 12, 1912, could have started in any number of ways. The miners at work at the different levels used candles to light their way. These candles were jammed into ‘spiders’, candle-holders with a long metal spike attached, which were in turn twisted into the wooden beams supporting the workings. Men also heated their ‘crib cans’ or billies by placing candles between two nails in the timber and suspending the cans above the flames. The men smoked cigarettes. And, in addition to all these ignition points, there was electric machinery like pumps which were not always attended. But the threat of fire seemed an absurdity to many — the mine was commonly regarded as being too wet to burn. The workings in some parts were so damp that the men receieved an additional allowance for working there, known as ‘wet pay’. So even when fire broke out on that Saturday morning, many of the miners did not regard it as a serious threat. They waited to see if the smoke would clear. However, this hesitation meant that when they tried to escape later they found their paths blocked by thick, choking clouds of smoke and carbon monoxide. By 12.30, the mine’s two most senior managers Robert Sticht and Russell Murray realised this was no minor incident. Nearly 100 men were missing below and rescue parties could not get down to them. Two days after the fire, a rope sounded out a signal from the 1000ft level: “40 men in 40 stope: send food and candles at once, no time to lose — J. Ryan”

This note sparked one of the greatest mining rescue efforts in history.

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