1973 – Markham Colliery Disaster
On Monday 30th July 1973 a terrible disaster happened when the cage carrying the miners to go underground into the pit failed to stop. It was the start of the day shift and by 6.20am 105 miners had already been lowered into the pit. Then, the overlap rope cage carrying 15 men on the top deck and 14 men on the lower deck began its descent. Sparks were seen coming from the brake cylinder by the engine winder who then slammed on the emergency stop button. Nothing happened and the cage crashed down to the bottom of the pit some 1,329 feet below ground. The ascending cage crashed through the winding house roof. 13 men died at the scene and another 5 men died later in hospital. The other 11 men in the cage and one rescue worker were very seriously injured and were taken to hospital at Chesterfield.
The disaster was widely covered in the local and national press
Coventry Evening Telegraph 30th July 1973
Lift cage plunges 600ft to shaft bottom
13 DEAD IN PIT HORROR
Thirteen miners died today when a lift cage plunged to the bottom of a Derbyshire Pit. The 15 survivors are seriously injured. The accident happened at Markham Colliery, near Chesterfield, as the cage took the 28 men down to work. Mr Martin Kennedy, secretary of the Chesterfield group of hospitals, said that 33 people were being treated , five for shock. A number of people went to the hospitals not knowing whether their husbands, sons and other relatives were among the dead.
Mr. Ike Carter (49), the miners’ union branch secretary, said he thought the cage went out of control about half way down the 1,320ft. shaft. “The impact must have been terrific, judging by the injuries of many of the men who in some cases were almost unrecognisable.”
The crash is believed to have happened as a result of an “overwind” – the rising cage was wound into the headgear and the descending cage dropped to the foot of the shaft. Investigations to establish the cause have already started.
Miners in the pit rushed to help their colleagues. Within 40 minutes the first of the injured were being brought up neighbouring shafts.
Mr. Robert Dunn, North Derbyshire area director of the Coal Board, described the tragedy as a “further subchapter in the recent events which have bedevilled the coal mining industry.” It was “extremely serious and tragic.”
The winding equipment was being taken from the shaft for examination. “It is implicit there has been an engineering failure of one sort or another, irrespective of whether there was human error..”
The journey was in the hand of the winding-engine man, who worked alone, but there were safety devices which should operate if he was suddenly taken ill or failed to apply the brakes for any reason.
The winding engineer on duty, who had “vast experience,” had sustained very heavy shock.
The Minister for Industry, mr. Tom Boardman was this afternoon flying by helicopter from his home in Northamptonshire to the disaster pit
Mr. Derek Ezra, chairman of the Coal Board and Mr. Joe Gormley, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, were also visiting the pit today.
The Queen has sent a message to Mr. Ezra, expressing her distress and sending sympathy to the victims’ relatives.
Daily Mirror 31st July 1973
THE CAGE OF SUDDEN DEATH
A routine one minutes trip to the coal face ended in horror and death yesterday as a pit cage plunged out of control to the bottom of its shaft. Thirty miners were aboard the two decker cage as it began its twenty-m.p.h. descent into Derbyshire’s Markham Colliery at 6.20 a.m. yesterday.
Fourteen men died after its accelerated wildly and smashed into the bottom of the shaft with steam-hammer force. The others were badly injured. Their screams, and billowing clouds of dust, brought the sixty men already in the pit racing to the scene.
They could see their comrades, horribly injured, only inches away. But they could not reach them because the gates of the cage were buckled and would not open.
For fifteen minutes they worked frantically with spanners, crowbars and their bare hands to wrench the gates off.
Harry Furniss, who had been waiting at the pit bottom, said “The men inside were crying, “get us out – get us out.”
“it was unbearable. They were just inches away, and in terrible pain, but we couldn’t do anything to ease it”
At last the gates were torn off, and the dead, dying and injured were brought out. Some rescuers were so shocked by the carnage that they had to leave the pit for hospital treatment.
The bottom deck of the cage was horribly buckled at the end of the 1,320ft. drop. One grime – streaked rescuer said: “They were packed like sardines in that cage. It was terrible.”
Another, ambulance driver, Johnny Walker said: “It looked like a casualty clearing station after a battle.
“Some of the miners needed more medical attention than I could give. I went from one stretcher to the next, giving pain-killing injections. I don’t stop tp look at their faces – I might have recognised someone I knew. Then it would have hit me, and I wouldn’t have got the job done.”
Johnny was helped by another qualified first aider, miner George Stephenson, who was already at the pit bottom. After each man had been tended by the two first aiders, he was hurried away to another shaft nearby and whisked to the surface.
Mr Stephenson said later: “It was the worst thing I have ever seen. The screams and moans were terrible. There was a jumble of bodies heaped on top of each other. Many were obviously dead on their stretchers, but one reached out and touched my hand. I knew then that he was alive, but he didn’t say anything.”
By 8 a.m. all the dead and injured were on their way to a nearby hospital in a fleet of ambulances. Then the task of sorting out how the disaster happened got under way. It was plain that some of the fourteen safety devices on the winding gear had failed. Two were known to have worked. They halted the cage on the other end of the cables it hurtled up and hit the winding gear, and stopped it from falling back into the shaft.
As the inquiry got under, wives and other relatives of the miners were following the ambulances to the Royal Hospital, Chesterfield. Silent and white-faced they were shepherded to a room near the operating theatres. Then at one 0’clock more than six hours after the tragedy, came the news they were all waiting for.
Chaplain James Crossley said: “It was an awful moment, very tense and full of emotion.”
Women broke down as officials began reading out the names of the thirteen dead, and the critically injured. Some of the bereaved left the hospital. But for those whose menfolk were on the danger list, the ordeal went on.
Late last night the waiting room was still crowded with relatives….praying desperately for a flicker of hope to relieve a day of black tragedy.
Chat that saved Matthew
MATTHEW BURTON stopped for a chat yesterday – and missed being one of the Markham victims by seconds. Instead, he arrived in time to be one of the first rescue workers into the pit.
“I’d normally have gone down with the lads in that cage.” said Matthew. “But I was talking with a friend about the cabaret act at our local club the night before. One of my mates shouted “Are you coming?” and I replied “In a minute.” My mates went down without me. As I reached the doorI heard a terrible bang. Men came rushing out of the winding shed: “The chair’s gone down!” We went down another shaft. Men were being carried back past us on stretchers. They were groaning, and one poor lad was moaning “My legs, my legs.”
“They were all badly injured – faces, legs, ankles. Some had blood coming from their mouths. I knew them all. They were all my mates. I felt sick.”
Matthew’s wife, Yvonne, knowing the accident had happened on her husband’s shift, spent a morning of agony until he came home.
How could it crash?
Pit cages, like the one which took thirty men to disaster yesterday, are one of the safest forms of transport in the world. They and their winding gear are meticulously checked by experts every twenty-four hours, with fail.
During each check, a man takes a slow ride down on the roof of the car to examine the guides which prevent the ascending and descending cages from bumping into each other.
Every six month, the cables are ruthlessly overhauled. Worn sections are cut and replaced. Nothing is left to chance in the winding engine house, from which the cages are controlled. No one is allowed to operate the cages until he has worked in the winding engine house for years, and knows all there is to know about the job.
Pit cages are so safe that it is forty years since on was last involved in an accident.
Now an inquiry must decide what went wrong yesterday….. how all the checks, all the care, all the safety devices, somehow failed to keep tragedy ay bay.
THE JOURNAL 11th October 1973
Pit cage crash ‘horror’ injuries
X-RAYS of miners badly injured in the Markham Colliery disaster in which 18 died produced pictures “the like of which many doctors had not seen before,” it was said at a public inquiry ay Chesterfield, Derbyshire, yesterday.
Evidence was given by Dr. G.W.C. Baker, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the town’s Royal Hospital. In one patient, part of the tibia (the shinbone) had been driven through the sole of the foot, he said.
The disaster came when a pit cafe carrying 30 men plummeted to the bottom of a 1,400ft. shaft at Markham – Derbyshire’s largest colliery – on July 30.
One of the first exhibits produced at the inquiry was a fractured brake rod, which was said to have been three quarters of an inch off-centre after the disaster.
About 50 witnesses are expected to give evidence to the Chief Inspector of Mines, Mr. J.W. Calder, who is heading the inquiry.
Dr Baker, aged 44, said 25 miners were taken to the hospital, but nine were dead on arrival. Three more died soon after and six others died later. Almost all the men had spinal injuries and a large number also received severe chest injuries. Many had broken limbs. Some of the injured were still lying in hospital and would not not be allowed home for a long time.
In a shaking voice, Mr Richard William Kennan, aged 53, the winding engiineman relived the events.
The cage was on its way down when he noticed sparks under the brake cylinder, followed by a small bang, he said.
He reduced the voltage powering the cage’s descent and applied the handbrake – but nothing happened. “Moving the brake lever was the same as picking a pen up – there was no weight there at all,: he told the inquiry.
He carried on reducing the power and then pressed the emergency stop button, but the cage kept falling.
“the next thing I can remember is bricks falling around me,” he said. “Then after that two fitters were fetching me out of the engine house.”
Mr. Kennan said he was one of the most senior operators at the pit. He had never had cause to suspect his equipment at the top of the No.3 shaft. In his desperate attempts to half the cage he had reduced power from 300 volts to between 200 – 220 volts but nothing could slow it down. He said that he had not received any formal training for emergency procedure.
“This was handed down from winder to winder,” he said. He had not carried an emergency stop check that morning, but had inspected the engine house when he signed in – as was his normal daily practice.
Colliery workman William Yates, aged 41, said: “All hell was let loose at the surface when there was a loud bang at the bottom of the shaft.”
He went to the winding engine room to see if Mr. Kennan was all right. In one corner was a heap of debris about seven feet high, where he found Mr. Kennan. He was shaking and could not keep still. “The brake would not work. What about the men at the bottom?” he said. A member of the pit’s development back-up team said he and two colleagues decided at the last minute not to go down in the “death cage.” Mr. John Wild, aged 60, said they had stepped back to allow some deputies to go down the shaft ahead of them. Shortly afterwards there was a “terrible bang.”
Mr. Andrew Marshall, aged 43, described how he saw part of the roof of the engine winding house “lift up into the air.” Bricks were flying everywhere.
Mr. Harry Furness, aged 53, told how he went down to the pit bottom just before the disaster and told a colleague he thought the cage they were travelling in was “motoring a bit.” At the pit bottom he heard a rumbling noise which grew into a whine. He jumped back and the cage crashed into the bottom. He was unable to open the cage gate and noticed a man’s head caught between the gate meshing and the side of the cage. He said he then ran to a nearby cabin for spanners but the cabin was locked and he had to kick the door in.
Mr. Rowland Bilby, aged 64, said there was a loud bang and he heard the sound of falling bricks and the cage rope was also coming down. When he prised the cage door open he found many men lying on top of each other.
Mr. Trevor Vallance, aged 45, told how he saw rescuers using hacksaws to get to the trapped men. “The men inside the cage were on their haunches lying backwards with their legs bent underneath them. We dragged them outing laid them out on stretchers,” he said.
The inquiry was adjourned until today.
The Birmingham Post October 8th 1973
Death plunge pit shaft reopens
The pit shaft which claimed the lives of 18 miners at Markham Colliery, in Derbyshire, will return to full use from today, two days before an official inquiry into the disaster opens in the town.
A group of management and union volunteers made a trail cage drop down the 1,320ft deep No.2 shaft before the Coal Board asked shift workers to use it once more. A Coal Board spokesman said yesterday that the descent was trouble free. The shaft was now fully operational. The engine house has also been declared safe after extensive repairs and the installation of new winding machinery following the disaster when a cage load of men plunged to the bottom of the shaft.
Special pamphlets of mining slang and technical terms are being prepared by n.C.B. officials for distribution to people taking part in the public inquiry on Wednesday. It will be conducted by Mr. James Calder. H.M. chief inspector of mines and quarries, and is expected to last for over a week. About 50 witnesses may be called.
More than £37,700 has now been raised by a public appeal towards the fund to help the relatives of the dead and injured men
Liverpool Echo 11th October 1973
PIT PLUNGE NIGHTMARE
Nightmare plunge in an out-of-control pit cage- in which 18 miners died – was described today by one of the survivors – Mr Terence Vaughan, a 33-years-old development worker, who was on the top deck of the3 cage as it hurtled to the bottom of No.3 shaft at Markham Colliery, Derbyshire, with 30 men on board.
“I felt a slight braking just before the cage reached the half-way, and then felt the cage begin to accelerate,” he told the public inquiry at Chesterfield.
“I blacked out before I hit the pit bottom. Then I remember someone asking me if I had any pain. I said I had pain in my legs and back, and he gave me a shot of morphia.”
The inquiry, being conducted by Chief Inspector of Mines and Quarries Mr. James Calder, is in its second day.
Belfast Telegraph April 10th 1974
Winch-man cleared in pit disaster
The Markham Pit tragedy, in which 18 men died and 11 were seriously injured, was caused by the “complete failure of the mechanical brake of the winding engine,” says the official disaster report, published today.
But the winding engiineman on duty when the cage crashed to the bottom is completely cleared by the report.
The Markham Pit disaster happened 1,407 feet down at the bottom of No.3 shaft at the colliery. Estimates suggest that the cage hit the bottom at 27 mph.
More than 100 men had been wound down the shaft that morning before the accident. The last casualty was brought to the pit’s medical centre on the surface some two hours after the disaster.
Nine technical recommendations designed to tighten up cage winding safety are made and a committee on safety has also been set up.
The findings were:
(1) Fatigue cracks developed in a brake rod and these cracks could have been detected, but not just by visual inspection
(2) Mechanical braking only was available through the emergency stop button. Electrical braking would have helped.
(3) arresting devices below the landing at the shaft bottom would have helped, but instead there was just wooden landing baulks.
The rod which fractured was a 21-year-old, two inch diameter steel rod which supplied the braking force. Since the accident at the colliery, near Chesterfield, all similar rods in the winding gear at five other collieries have been changed by the National Coal Board.
The report, by the Chief Inspecto9r of Mines and Quarries, Mr.J.W. Calder, says the cracks in the rod could have been detected before it broke by a non-destructive method of testing.
The report which follows a six day public inquiry in October, exonerates the winding engiineman on duty when the accident occurred at about 6.30 a.m. on July 30, Mr. R.W. Kennan.