I commented about the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia in January here and want to add a few comments about the just completed rescue of Todd Russell and Brant Webb from the Beaconsfield gold mine in Tasmania.

This one was smaller in scale – one man killed two trapped – but went on for a long time – two weeks. Saved by a metal cage the men were found early enough to get food and water to them before it was too late and what proved to be a difficult and delicate rescue could proceed without overwhelming time pressure. In the end extremely hard rock delayed the rescue by several days, but the men emerged in good shape. The danger to the rescuers, as well as the trapped miners, must have been intense at times. It says a lot for the skill of miners that once found alive so many are ultimately rescued. At Spring Hill Nova Scotia in 1958 174 men were trapped. 74 died and 100 were eventually rescued.

Some kinds of human disaster hold a particular fascination and mining disasters are one. They focus our fear of being trapped and because they often take a long time to play out they exercise our fear and our identification with those trapped over a long period of time. Another example is missing persons – particular children. Both have this extended time factor that allows a dramatic situation to develop and both show human beings in a very vulnerable situation with which it is easy to identify. Most of us do not experience the actual disaster in any first hand way. We experience it via the media and it is the dramatic potential inherent in the situation that makes these kinds of events so involving.

I first vicariously experienced a mining disaster when I was 17 listening to events at Spring Hill on the radio. I had a good radio and long antenna and I could get the direct CBC coverage at night. It went on for 10 days and I never forgot it. But my experience was not that of the participants. As I wrote about the earlier Sago disaster:

Many years later I met a man from Springhill who had witnessed the whole thing, although he had no close relatives involved. I immediately recognized that, for all my emotional involvement via the media, this man had a different experience that I felt bound to respect and recognize as less filtered than my own. I could see how my own experience was relatively self absorbed, and closer to the experience of a gripping documentary than of real life. We blur this difference easily – particularly where photography is involved. Seeing is believing in our culture, so part of us believes we saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. We temporarily suspend our critical faculties when we watch a dramatic movie, but we often think we have experienced reality when we see a documentary. Or a live news broadcast. We know better when we think about it, but emotionally we often dont know better at all.

The Beaconsfield story was told well by the media. They were kept at a distance by the mine officials, the rescuers and the families and they seemed to accept it well. An army of psychologists, health workers and many others – even people experienced in helping families sell their stories went to Beaconsfield and all participants seems to have gotten on reasonably well. I think the media have improved in this respect – it is easy for them to stir up controversy for the sake of sensation and generally appear ghoulish. I did not watch a lot of coverage but I was at no point offended by the way the media were handling themselves. The coverage at Spring Hill I experienced was by radio. It may well have been the first mining disaster to be extensively copvered by electronic media. I didn’t have access to CBC TV and don’t remember any coverage on US TV although CBC TV footage might have been run. My recollection was that it didn’t get the kind of broad coverage that we see today with Sago or Beaconsfield where one could say that the public in both the US and Australia were keenly aware of both stories as well as a substantial world wide audience. The aftermath of Spring Hill produced a far less orderly list of outcomes good and bad. This account of the entire Spring Hill story ends with this list:

  • In the media crush at the pithead (the shaft entrance at the surface), reporters would rush to speak with survivors, particularly the 2 groups of miners who had been trapped until Thursday and Sunday respectively. In asking survivor Douglas Jewkes what he wanted most, he replied “A 7-Up.” Following this high-profile media event and unexpected “plug” the 7-Up company hired the miner as a spokesman.
  • Another miner, Maurice Ruddick, was chosen as Canada’s “Citizen of the Year”.
  • Several miners and their rescuers were invited onto the Ed Sullivan Show.
  • The Governor of Georgia Marvin Griffin took advantage of the intense media coverage to promote tourism to his state by offering a group of survivors free vacations to Jekyll Island. However to the segregationist governor’s chagrin, one of the rescued miners — Ruddick — turned out to be black, resulting in a public relations nightmare.
  • The Town of Springhill was awarded the Carnegie Hall Medal recognizing the community involvement needed to save the surviving miners in 1958. To this day, Springhill is the only community to receive the award reserved for individual acts of heroism.

One Response to “Beaconsfield”  

  1. 1 John

    John from Kyneton Victoria. What a fine piece of writing.

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