12 July 1888, Rescue attempts continue at the De Beers Mine disaster as hundreds of miners escape the underground fire.
Pictured is the GM of De Beers at the time of the disaster, Gardner Williams, and the memorial at Gladstone cemetery.
Rescue attempts continue at the De Beers Mine
Gardner Williams, General Manager of De Beers Consolidated Mines:
“The [De Beers] mine was ventilated at the time through an outlet into the old open workings, and through the Gem shaft on the east side of the mine. The Gem shaft was a small, old working shaft that had been sunk from a terrace in the blue ground. Unfortunately it had been partially closed by a recent ground slide in that part of the mine. It was, however, still sufficiently open to be of invaluable ventilating service at this crisis, and it could have been opened for the rescue of the men in the mine if there had been no other means of escape through the outlet into the open workings. During the hours of fearful anxiety that followed the closing of the two main shafts, the outlet from the mine to the open workings was intently watched, and daring parties penetrated far within it in the hope of communicating with miners escaping from the range of the fire. Almost all of the men in the mine were well acquainted with this passage to the surface, and it was confidently hoped that many, at least, would contrive to grope their way upward through this outlet to safety. Fortunately the air draught through this passage was downcast, and the inrush of air cleared the passage from smoke.
“To the immeasurable relief of all, so anxiously expectant, one white man and six native miners came climbing through this passage into the open workings at about ten o’clock on the night of the fire. This showed that a practicable way of escape from the mines was open, but many hours of fearful suspense followed throughout that night and the following day, while the miners were groping their way to the surface through the same opening. Forty-two white men and 441 native miners were thus rescued, but 24 whites and 178 natives lost their lives in levels and passageways charged with deadly smoke.
“The downcast draught through the Gem shaft was the salvation of the greater part of the rescued men, who spent this fearful night on the level close to this shaft, which was free from smoke. During the afternoon of the following day, July 12, a party of heroic men penetrated far into the mine through the entrance in the open workings, and rescued a number of natives who were cowering stupefied by the smoke, or paralyzed by fear. In this rescuing party were some who had passed the night in this frightful prison, but who were, nevertheless, among the first to volunteer to go down again in the desperately hazardous venture to save their comrades.
“No. I Incline was completely burned out and caved in during the night of the fire. During the night of the 12th No. 2 incline caved in also for a distance of about 40 feet, near the junction of the shale with the hard rock, shutting off all communication with the mine.
“Several days after the fire I went down the shaft accompanied by Captain Hambley, Assistant Inspector of Mines, and one of the overmen. I arranged to lower the skip gradually down the incline to make the first inspection. As we went down, an insulated signal wire was lowered, and provision was made so that I could keep the bell ringing continually, and instructions were given to haul up the skip at the moment the ringing stopped, for I feared that we might drop into foul air so suddenly that we would not be able to signal in the usual manner. So we went down in the skip slowly to a point about 150 feet above the crushed ground in the shaft. At this point, some 250 feet below the surface, we saw the body of one of the men who went down with Mr. Lindsay just before the breaking out of the fire. We did not stop, for the moment, but kept on signalling until the skip was lowered to the ground which closed the shaft.
Our search for any further trace of the lost miners was fruitless, for we could find no more bodies. Mr. Lindsay and his remaining companions were buried beneath the debris when this part of the shaft caved in. Finding that the further descent of the skip was cut off, I then gave the signal to hoist, and on reaching the surface, gave instructions for men to go down and remove the body seen in the shaft. The poor man had climbed up to the point where he died, in a desperate effort to escape. The other men, as well as the skip in which they went down, were buried deeply under the mass of crushed ground.”
(From: THE DIAMOND MINES OF SOUTH AFRICA. SOME ACCOUNT OF THEIR RISE AND DEVELOPMENT)