Cover over the borehole drilled immediately above the trapped miners.
Professor D J Simons: Death in South African Mines
1. Chasing Production
Speed-up comes from the management's excessive desire to make profits. As the Coalbrook disaster showed, the drive for profits can reduce the margin of safety in other ways. It was alleged in the inquiry that the management had caused the coal pillars supporting the roof to be thinned down—'robbed* is the expression used—to such an extent that the roof caved in. It was against regulations to make the pillars smaller than the size shown in the plan; but according to the evidence, the management had done just that in order to "prolong the life of the section". The Commission found that "the subsidence of the mine was due to the negligence and omission of the present consulting engineer, the general managers, the managers and assistant managers".
The widow of a white miner killed in the Coalbrook accident will draw a pension of from 30 pounds to £75 a month, depending on the number of children, under the compensation law. The African miner's widow will get a lump sum of at least £180, paid to her at the rate of £3 or £4 a month, but no pension. In her case the number of children does not affect the amount of compensation. The white widow, in addition to her statutory pension, received £150 from the white Miners' Union (from which Africans are debarred by law), from the Chamber of Mines to cover immediate expenses, her husband's salary for seven months, and a rent-free house for the same period. The African widows eceived none of these benefits, not even on a reduced scale. The white widow will also draw a pension from the Governor-General's National Mines Disaster Fund, which was established with money donated to the victims of Coalbrook. Benefits to Africans from this fund will take the form of lump sum payments, but no indication has yet been given of the amounts. An official of the Social Welfare Department was reported as having said on the question of granting relief from the fund to Africans: "It seems to us that there is no need to throw money about in all directions till we have the whole business sorted out".
3. COALBROOK POSTSCRIPT
COALBROOK was the biggest disaster in the history of South African mining. Never before have so many men been killed in one fall of rock. We do not yet know the full significance of what happened at the Coalbrook mine on January 21, 1960. Not all the facts have been disclosed, and the case is still open.
At the time of writing, the law officers have not yet made known their decision whether or not to prosecute. What we do have are the combined findings of the statutory board of inquiry and inquest published on July i960. The main conclusions in summary form are:
The whole of the north-eastern sector of the underground workings in the No. 2 seam of the Coalbrook North Collieries subsided on January 21, i960. None of the bodies of the 437 persons killed has been recovered. The court finds that death occurred by violence.
The subsidence resulted in methane gas being liberated into the underground workings. The cause of death was multiple injuries due to crushing by the fall of ground and/or anoxia (deficiency of oxygen) due to the presence of a large percentage of methane gas or coal dust.
All the persons entombed underground died at about 7.30p.m. on January 21,1960.
The subsidence of sectors of the No. 2 seam workings occurred between 7.26 p.m. and 7.32 p.m. on January 21, 1960, and followed on the collapse of portions of the so-called old Section 10 of the mine that had taken place on December 2 8, 1959, and at 4.40 p.m. on January 21, 1960.
The subsidence of the mine was due to the negligence and wrongful act and omission of the present consulting engineer (Mr. G. Dixon), the general managers (Mr. R. E. Burnton and Mr. W. Lorimer), the managers (Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Taylor), and the assistant managers (Mr. H. Easingwood and Mr. Shankland) and other man servants and agents.
One other fact of importance must be noted. On March 7, 1960, the Inspector of Mines decided to close the mine as a safety measure. When the company appealed, however, the Administration at a higher level reversed the decision. The mine is now functioning subject to many safeguards which had apparently not been adopted before the catastrophe.
We do not know if the timely adoption of these safeguards would have averted the subsidence. One can only ask questions.
Were rumblings and cracks noticed months before the roof caved in? Were pillars 'robbed' of coal? Did men as well as rats begin to desert the workings many hours before the collapse?
Is it true that men were ordered to go back to work under the threat of prosecution?
The questions have not been fully answered. Perhaps they never will be. Amidst the doubt and confusion we can only conclude that the defects which were commented on years ago have not yet been eliminated from South Africa's mining system.
South Africans reacted typically to Coalbrook: a great amount of verbal sympathy at the time, a quick return to forgetfulness (expedited by the political emergency), and a poor response in hard cash. After all, only six white men were killed. Moreover, the 431 dead African miners belonged to Basutoland and Mozambique and were therefore not the responsibility of South Africans. We have, unfortunately, no reason to console ourselves with the thought that their deaths will bring about reforms in mining laws and practices, or in the position of the black miner in the industry.