Glasgow Herald Reports, 1877 (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from yesterday, the Glasgow Herald reported on the following day of the Pit Disaster:

The miners, as usual, resumed work at six o’clock in the morning, 126 men and boys descending No. 3 shaft and 107 No. 2. (As the catastrophe is entirely confined to these two, it is unnecessary to involve the narrative with any further reference to No. 1).

All went well apparently until about nine o’clock, when the few pitheadmen who were gathered on the bank were rudely startled and alarmed by the dull heavy report as of an explosion. That such had befallen was soon rendered sadly apparent. The manager, James Watson, was engaged with a number of joiners fitting up a new cage at No. 3 Pit, when, without a note of warning, a vast volume of flame, smoke, coal, and wood shot up into their midst from the shaft below, shattering the cage into a thousand pieces, throwing the hoisting gear high into the air, and scattering the men about like nine-pins. How they managed to escape with their lives is a marvel. It is quite evident, of course, that they did not bear the full brunt of the concussion, for had they done so they must have been killed.

As it was, Mr Watson and all his assistants were greatly injured. They were all driven from their positions, and one man was pitched a distance of 20 feet. Stunned and bleeding, they picked themselves up speedily, but for a time they were quite unable to realise the full extent of the casualty. What may be described as a pillar of dense black soot rose high above the shaft, and falling, spread like a thin black pall around. Men, attracted by the ominous sound and the no less ominous appearances which were presented, hurried from the adjacent works, and at once gave heed to the necessities of the manager and the joiners with whom he had been working.

Mr Watson was found to have sustained severe injuries about the head and face. He was considerably bruised about the body, legs, and arms, and was removed with all speed to his residence, 47 Dixon Street, Stonefield, where medical gentlemen were in attendance and gave what assistance lay within their power. The other men, whose names follow, were also attended to, and were with all despatch conveyed — some home and some to friendly quarters nearer at hand. While the injured were thus receiving attention at the hands of the first arrivals, others who came from far and near took steps to calculate the extent of the disaster. This, owing to the blinding quantities of coal dust which filled the air, was not at the outset an easy task, but by dint of perseverance some progress was latterly made towards the pit-mouth, around which it was found was piled up a great heap of debris, broken wood, iron rods, and coal in large and small pieces. As the atmosphere in the neighbourhood of the pit-head cleared somewhat a better perception of the state of matters was obtained.

The lowering and raising apparatus was seen to be completely destroyed, the wire for the bells was twisted like a bit of delicate thread, and there was too much reason to fear that the brattice work had been considerably displaced. In this apparently hopeless difficulty attention was naturally directed to No. 2 Pit, which, as we have explained, has a communicating road with No. 3. Here the sad reality had also impressed itself on those in attendance on the pit-head. It appeared that shortly before nine o’clock some 13 men descended No. 2 Pit, with the view of commencing operations, but on reaching the bottom of the shaft, and before they had made any progress towards the north workings, where they were usually employed, they became alarmed by a feeling which they cannot well describe that all was not right. The air was oppressive, and they at once made for the cage again, and regained the bank without loss of time.

The explosion took place immediately on these men regaining the upper world, and many a “Thank God” was expressed by those who had thus escaped as by a miracle. But for the report of the explosion there was nothing at No. 2 Pit to indicate the nature of the accident that had occurred. But the dire effects which, it could be seen, had occurred at No. 3 Pit gave rise to the worst fears, and as messengers arrived from the latter shaft to report the true state of things there, measures were concerted to afford succour to the men below. In the first instance the cage had been let down, and on being raised to the surface again several men were found to be in it.

Amongst others was a young man named James Steven. He stated that while engaged alone in the north workings he heard an explosion, and though he did not regard it as a serious matter, he still took the precaution of making, though leisurely, for the pit bottom. Before he reached that point he felt the presence of fire-damp, and throwing himself to the ground crawled for the remainder of the distance to where he knew the cage would be. Arrived there he imagined that the fire-damp was not so dense, and having a brother in the workings he instinctively essayed to search for him. Before he had gone many yards, however, he learned by the faintness which began to oppress him that that was a hopeless task, and therefore returning to the cage he gave the signal, and was thereby saved as already explained. Steven and the others also reported that they feared many men were lying dead at no great distance from the pit bottom.

A gang of four men having been mustered, a descent within a very brief interval was made, and on their return, which was very speedily, the appalling nature of the catastrophe became painfully apparent. A dead body, that of a man, lay in the hutch. It was that of Joseph Gilmour, the oversman of the pit, who had been struck down at his post near to the engine which stood at the bottom of the shaft. The choke damp was reported to be very bad and several of the relief party were obliged to retire, so exhausted were they for the time from its effects. But their places were taken by willing substitutes, and again the cage was lowered to return in a short interval with a dead body and half-dead rescuers. This painful work was continued for about an hour, when six bodes having been brought up, operations had to be suspended, the choke damp having so gained on the men that they were compelled to retreat. Some of them, indeed, narrowly escaped, and had to be covered with earth to free them from the choke-damp ere they regained full consciousness.

The bodies recovered were terribly scorched and blackened, and presented a shocking sight when brought to the surface. They were literally encased in mud, the faces were all blackened and charred, and the arms, from which the clothes had been torn were deeply stained with blood. They had all evidently had a fearful, but, at the same time, a speedy death. Amongst those identified was one miner named William Campbell, a stout healthy looking man, who had his skull completely shattered, portions of his brain protruding from the back of his head. The bodies were removed on extemporised stretchers to an old store-room which was converted into a place for their reception. About this time the news of the calamity having circulated amongst the inhabitants of the village, old men, women, boys, and girls, rushed in one continuous stream to No. 2 Pit as being the nearest.

The arrival of the dead bodies at the pit-head created the greatest excitement, which arose to a painful intensity amongst the at all times excitable Irish element. The women sent up a loud wail, tore their hair, and rushed about in a half-crazed state, and strong men had to interfere to prevent them throwing themselves on the corpses. It is impossible to enter into details as to the heartrending scenes which prevailed for a time, and which only subsided after the lapse of some hours, and on the information being spread that exploring was to be suspended for a period. Gradually therefore the poor dejected, heart-sore wives and mothers, wended their way homewards, there to weep out their great and heavy grief. On the explorers being driven out of No. 2 Pit by the choke-damp, steps were at once taken to purify the air, and these consisted of pouring a copious supply of water down the shaft. Though discharged in one great volume at the pit-mouth, by the time it reached the bottom it had spread out, and would fall in ordinary rain drops.

The water acting on chokedamp counteracts its deadly influence, and after a time renders it innocuous. Some time after this experiment was tried another descent was made, and it was found that the air at the bottom of the shaft was much purer. Bodies were reported to be near at hand, but as life was found to be extinct, it was deemed proper to aim at making some advance into the workings. But little progress it was soon ascertained could be made in this direction. All the principal air courses on the north side were found closed, the brick wall on which the air is carried round was seen to be blown down, and to advance in the direction of the communications with No. 3 would have been foolhardy in the extreme. Therefore it was deemed expedient and wise to retrace steps and remove as many of the bodies as could be got at.

Between two and three o’clock three bodies were brought to the surface, where the news having spread that operations had been renewed, a large crowd had once more collected. The bodies were those of young lads, aged 12 to 14. Two of them were those of Robert Henry and William Bolton, pony drivers, and they were discovered lying beside their dead charges. The third lad was identified as a son of a man named Gilmour, whose body was removed from the same pit at an earlier hour. They were at once carried to the dead-house, followed by a band of weeping and wailing relatives and friends. The succeeding gang which descended returned with the bodies of George Todd, Patrick Burns, Michael McBrennan and Alexander Millar. They all presented the same blackened, charred and burned appearance already described; and from the bruised state of several of the heads and bodies it was clearly demonstrated that the explosion must have been of a fearful nature, seeing the wounds could only have arisen through the unfortunate men having been thrown to the ground. The choke-damp had now begun once more to assert itself, and the relieving parties, though eager and willing to prosecute the work were ultimately compelled to evacuate the shaft which was then closed.

A consultation was called of the experienced men present and it was decided that the only feasible course open, in order to make further progress by No. 2 Pit, was to sink an air shaft, so as to drive back the foul air. This work was at once proceeded with, and was prosecuted till well on in the night.

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