News State Tasmania News Beaconsfield mine disaster leaves lasting legacy

Beaconsfield mine disaster leaves lasting legacy

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One man lost his life in a rock fall at north Tasmania’s Beaconsfield gold mine, but as far as mining disasters go it is far from the worst on record.

Single events have killed thousands of miners overseas and many years ago scores died in mine mishaps across NSW’s Illawarra region.

In December 2013 two men died inside a shaft at the Mt Lyell mine in west Tasmania. Few, if any, people will have heard of the tragedy or know the mens’ names.

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They were Alistair Lucas, 25, and Craig Gleeson, 45, and they died after falling 22 metres from a platform inside the copper mine.

Still, it is Beaconsfield that continues to steal the headlines.

That’s because it was a tale of survival, determination, Aussie spirit, and hope which captivated people across the nation and overseas and has left a lasting legacy.

Todd Russell
Todd Russell, who survived a fortnight in a tiny steel cage trapped underground. Photo: Getty

When a 2.2-magnitude earth tremor shook the ground on April 25, 2006, 17 miners were down the shaft.

Fourteen men escaped immediately.

Larry Knight, 44, who was at the controls of a cherry picker-like machine was killed in the rock fall.

Colleagues Brant Webb and Todd Russell were in a basket at the end of a telescopic arm, attaching wire mesh to tunnel walls about 1km underground.

Some 800 tonne of rock came down on top of the basket, the cage becoming both their saviour and their captor.

Brant Webb
Brant Webb with wife Rachel after being rescued. Photo: Getty

For days no one knew the pair were alive, trapped side-by-side in the tiny space.

Sipping on seeping ground water collected in their helmets, there was no one to hear their cries for help, while those above ground were left to assume the worst.

Excavations first found Mr Knight’s body and then, five days after the rock fall, workers heard the cries of the survivors.

Then-secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Bill Shorten, was one of the many people who flocked to the mine site, eagerly awaiting progress of the rescue effort.

“It was these hard-rock miners, and their union, who never gave up on the two men trapped under 925 metres of earth and rock,” Mr Shorten told AAP.

“This disaster gave Australians a glimpse of the nation that people don’t think exists anymore.

“I got to see brave people, determined people, everyday people never give up, and I was privileged to play a small role on this remarkable story.”

Bill Shorten
Bill Shorten, then the Australian Workers Union boss, speaks to media outside the mine in 2006. Photo: Getty

Rescue crews faced a near-impossible task of extracting the men, quickly realising that cutting the steel cage would bring down the tonnes of rubble it was holding at bay.

Instead, a painstaking process of blasting began, to reach the men from another direction.

In the meantime supplies were fed to the pair through narrow gaps in the rock and later via long plastic piping.

The operation was conducted amid the constant fear of further collapses and at times work was stopped.

But the drilling continued and on May 9, a fortnight after they became trapped, the men walked free.

“At the heart of this story is the bravery of these two men, the love of their families and the determination of their rescuers,” Mr Shorten said.

Tasmanian miners Todd Russell (L) and Brant Webb move their safety tags to ‘Safe’ as they emerge from the mine lift. Photo: Getty

Mr Russell and Mr Webb were greeted at the surface by hundreds of waiting media, beaming the story of survival across the globe.

Now-federal Labor Opposition Leader, Mr Shorten said the event put the spotlight on workplace safety.

“It’s workers and their representatives who are constantly striving to make workplaces safer, because it’s the workers and their representatives who still far too often see injury and death in Australian workplaces,” he said.

A decade after the disaster, there is still debate about the adequacy of mine safety regulations in Tasmania.

After hearing nine weeks of evidence, a coroner found no one directly contributed to Mr Knight’s death, although noted that rock falls in 2005 suggested support systems in the mine were not adequate.

Professor Michael Quinlan, a workplace safety and risk expert from the University of NSW, investigated the Beaconsfield collapse and maintains that preventative measures should have been in place.

“It really shouldn’t have happened,” he told ABC TV.

“There is still a long way to go in terms of regulation – if you’ve got a mining industry you have to have a proper regulatory package and I don’t think Tasmania has it.”

But while unions agree regulations could be better across the island state, industry representatives insist Tasmania’s model provides workers with good protection.

A Tasmanian government review of mine safety legislation is due early in 2017.

In the meantime, the community of Beaconsfield will gather on May 9 to mark the decade anniversary of survival.


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