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The fire at the De Beers Mine, Kimberley.

TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY 11 JULY

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11 July 1878, Louis Hond found guilty of buying two diamonds from Africans.
11 July 1888, The world’s worst diamond mine disaster occurs at the De Beers mine, claiming 202 lives.

DID YOU KNOW

11 July 1888 was the worst day in Kimberley’s history, with 202 miners being killed in the underground fire that nearly destroyed the De Beers Mine.

This disaster is also the world’s worst diamond mine disaster.

“While the shifts were being changed the hauling wire broke and the skip rushed down the shaft with frightful rapidity. The oil lamps were broken, and the blazing fluid quickly ignited the wooden casing of the shaft. The mine was soon filled with smoke, and the lights carried by the miners were rendered useless. The panic-stricken natives and whites, in their efforts to escape, became massed together in the galleries and were suffocated to death. There were over 700 men below at the time. Two shafts have been destroyed. One remains intact. The works themselves are not much injured. The damage is estimated at £20,000. A great panic prevailed in Kimberley. The scenes described by the search parties were terrible. The miners had to use dynamite in order to clear the passages from the dead bodies.”

The news agency Reuters reported thus:

“Regarding the origin of the fire, all that is positively known is that it was discovered in the casing of the entrance shaft below the 500ft. level. In spite of the efforts to quench the flames, they spread alarmingly, and in a few minutes the shaft resembled a raging furnace.

The flames rapidly reached tile various workings. When the alarm was given a rush was made for the ladder ways and the “skip” (pulley car). The flames, however, mounted too readily to allow of an escape by the ladders and “skip,” which started for the surface, but which by the burning through of the wire rope, was precipitated into the inclining shaft together with its human freight of panic-stricken natives. Many must have been crushed to death in the rush towards the shaft, but none of those who sought this means of escape have lived to tell the tale. The more experienced of the men retreated in the other direction through the levels to the old workings of the Gem Company, where the prospect of safely awaiting rescue was greater.

Here they remained until the morning, continually threatened by the volumes of smoke drawn by the air currents in that direction, and uncertain regarding the spread of the fire, all attempts to reconnoitre being frustrated by the dense smoke and heat.

Finally it was endeavoured to force a way to a higher level. The horrors of this journey through the length of the narrow ladder ways and man-holes, choked with dead, and stifling with heat and stench and smoke, are said to be beyond description, and the success of the attempt was mainly due to the great bravery and energy displayed by Harry Paul and a few of his companions. (One by one they reached the 330ft. level, and thence they made their way to the narrow crack, which is the only outlet to this part of the mine in safety).

Rescue parties were then energetically worked to attempt to save the others still below, and many acts of great bravery were performed. Mr. Gardner Williams, general manager, was directing the work with untiring energy. M.S. Armstrong, contractor, lost his life by returning to warn his men at the first outbreak. Mr. Lindsay, the newly-arrived underground manager, who started from the surface in the ‘ skip ‘ with three companions on the first intimation of something being wrong below, must have been suffocated with them in descending.

On the 13th the rescue parties were stopped by the inspector of mines to prevent useless sacrifice of life.

A very sad incident in connection with the disaster is the death of Mr Clarence Lindsay, manager of the De Beers Mine. He was the son of Major Lindsay, of Sunderland, and only received the appointment a short time since. He could not have been at his duties more than four or five days. He was a young man of great promise, respected by the mining and engineering profession in the North of England. He was formerly manager of the Usworth colliery, Durham; and, in an explosion at that colliery in the month of March, 1885, distinguished himself by his efforts to rescue some entombed men at the risk of his own life.

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

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