Death Underground

Fatal Accidents in Coal Mines on the South Coast of NSW

R. R. Lidden
This article, from the April 1979 issue of the APJ, gives an overview of the types of fatal accidents that can occur in coal mines. The article was written due to a lack of general awareness within police ranks as to the the nature of coal mining fatalities. At that period the coal mining industry was particularly dangerous and police often found themselves called to collieries to investigate deaths for the coroner.

The first coal of commercial quality was discovered in 1797 at Coalcliff on the South Coast of New South Wales. Due mainly to problems of access and transport, this coal was not mined until the Coalcliff Mine commenced production on the 11th January, 1878. This underground coal mine, after one hundred years of coal production; now using mechanised methods, is one of the major coal producers on the South Coast. The adjacent Darkes Forest Mine and the Westcliff Mine have also been developed by this Company. 

The Coalcliff Mine and the North Bulli Colliery, formerly known as the South Clifton Colliery, are both located in the Scarborough Police Patrol. Fatal accidents at these mines have contributed to the author’s personal experience.


Underground mechanised coal mining is an operation which is fraught with danger. High tension electricity is taken in to the mine, to operate the mining machinery, conveyor belts and other machines, often several hundreds of metres below the ground surface.

The process of extracting coal from the seam alters the stresses contained in the surrounding rock strata, which may result in the movement of the floor, roof, or sides of the working area. The use of high speed machines in mining coal produces coal dust, which if permitted to mix with the air and become ignited by a spark or flame, will cause an explosion of devastating force. Methane gas is also contained in coal seams and if undetected or allowed to accumulate by poor ventilation, it will pose a danger to the safe working of the mine. 

All electrical equipment used underground in the mine must be flameproof and have intrinsically safe circuits. The use of heavy mining machines in confined spaces also lends itself to situations endangering the operators. It is hardly surprising that in these circumstances accidents occur, sometimes with fatal results. 

Stringent statutory safety regulations are laid down for coal mining and operating procedures developed by experience are designed to minimise the likelihood of injury or death to the coalminer. Human nature being what it is, short cuts are sometimes taken, mostly without any serious result but on occasions the conclusion is sudden and final. 

We, as Police, are accustomed to investigating fatal accidents in many forms such as drownings. motor vehicle accidents and the like. In New South Wales fatal accidents are required to be investigated by police and the necessary reports prepared for the Coroner. Underground mining fatalities are no different in this regard but what is strikingly different -is the location and the circumstances. 

Coalminers are a very closely knit work group, all facing the same hazards daily and a fatal accident underground creates a unique and sobering atmosphere in the mine. It is quite an experience when for the rust time one enters the mine, in overalls; loaded with safety helmet, cap light and battery, self-breathing apparatus and any other equipment required. Then to descend either by lift or transport into the mine and travel perhaps hundreds of metres to the scene of the fatality deep underground. A new language is quickly learned, words such as “goaf”, “bars”, “props”, “inbye” and “shuttle car” are explained and equipment, machines and underground conditions identified and described by the men who work there daily. 

Statements taken from the victim’s workmates, usually the only witnesses and from others with responsibilities in the work area, provide the basis of the investigation. Observations made at the scene and photographs taken by special techniques coupled with the technical information gathered by the Department of Mines Inspector also at the scene help to fill out the picture. Finally the results of the post mortem examination on the victim combine to complete the picture of sudden violent death. Yet with each subsequent investigation of an underground fatality, more knowledge is gained of mining and underground conditions and a strong appreciation is felt of the environment in which the coalminer works and sometimes suddenly dies.


‘Bar’ – a horizontal wood or steel roof support. Can be placed in position by hand or by vertical jacks on the miner. It is supported by props.

‘Goaf’ – a section of the mine where all the coal has been removed? and the roof is allowed to fall in at a controlled rate

‘Mine Deputy’ – the foreman responsible for supervision of the panel crew. He is also responsible for the safety of the crew and makes the statutory safety checks and reports on. the panel machinery, ventilation and any other problems in the panel.

‘Miner’ – (a) a coalminer; (b) continuous mining machine used underground with the capacity for high speed cutting and loading of coal from the seam. It has the productive capacity of from 10 – 12 tonnes per minute, is self-propelled and operates from high tension electricity supplied by a heavy drag cable.

‘Panel’ – the basic production unit. Consists of one continuous miner, two shuttle cars and a panel conveyor belt system. A crew of eight men operate the equipment, technical assistance being provided by a panel maintenance fitter and a panel electrician.

‘Pillar’ – a section of coal left in the· seam when development work takes place. Usually about 1000 metres long by 110 metres wide.

‘Pillar Extraction’ – a mining procedure carried out in the majority of underground mines in New South Wales. The pillar of coal is cut out and the roof allowed to fall in as the mining operation withdraws.

‘Prop’ – a vertical wood or steel roof support.

‘Shuttle car’ – a transport medium designed to carry form 7 – 12 tonnes of coal from the miner to the conveyer belt. Powered by a trailing electrical cable up to 200 metres long, stored in a drum on the machine.

A shuttle car


A number of fatal accidents are now dealt with, to show the varied types of incid.ents that may occur and their results, in underground coal mining.

Case 1

About1.30pm, 6 September, 1960, two miners John Reginald Warrington, 5O old and Gordon Selwyn Rogan, 33 old, with a number of other men were operating a continuous miner and a loader in the No. 13 Pillar Section of the South Clifton Colliery. It was nearing knock-off time so the deputy instructed that the machines be withdrawn from the face. 

The loader had commenced to move back, when without warning. the roof fell in, the edge of the fall being across the front of the loader. Warrington was seen just before the fall, standing mid-way between the two machines on the rib side and his body was recovered at this point. Rogan was last seen sitting at the controls of the miner and his body was recovered from beneath the delivery boom of that machine, where he had apparently dived for protection. However, the fall of stone was so massive it broke the boom of the miner and drove it down onto Rogan’s body. Both men were apparently killed instantly by the rock fall. 

A continuous mining machine

Case 2

On 26 September, 1960, at 5.40pm, in the No. 13 Pillar Section of the South Clifton Colliery, Alfred James Woolridge, 42 old, miner, with a number of other men, was engaged in withdrawing a loader from the face. The machine had developed a fault and could not move under its own power. Attempts to tow the machine out using a shuttle car failed and a second shuttle car was brought to the loader. 

One car was driven under the boom of the loader and then attached to the machine by means of a chain, the two shuttle cars being coupled together with a wire rope. The boom of the loader was resting low in the well of the shuttle car when recovery was commenced. The shuttle cars had towed the loader about three metres when the tow chain hitch between the loader and the shuttle car failed. It went slack on one side, then jerked and this caused the boom of the loader to suddenly rise from the shuttle car well and whip to the right. Woolridge, who was walking alongside the car holding a loop of heavy cable from the machine, was struck by the boom on the left shoulder and crushed against a roof support prop. A doctor treated him at the scene but all efforts to revive him failed and he died about 6.15pm that day whilst being carried towards the underground transport.

Case 3

At 12.45pm, 13 April, 1967, in the No. 1 Panel, Coalcliff Colliery, William Frederick Oliver Draper, 38 old, miner, was working with other members of the panel crew when the deputy detected movement in the goaf and directed the machines to be withdrawn. 

The machines were withdrawn past a cut-through intersection when a large fall occurred. While the panel crew were waiting, a second fall occurred and they waited a further 10 minutes for it to settle down. Draper and another miner walked back to the machines and the placed appeared quiety. They both then went to the intersection about 6 – 8 metres ahead of the machines and draper started to pull back the slack miner cable. The other miner returned to get tools leaving Draper working under the supported roof, near the edge of the fall. Anotehr falled occurred without warning and Draper was found pinned under a large stone slab, which had fallen against the pillar. He was removed and first aid applied; however, he died whilst being conveyed to hospital.

Case 4

A mine deputy, Thomas Edwards, 41 old, was working in the No. 16 Section, South Clifton Colliery, about 1.45am, 7 Une, 1968. He was with Ernest Taylor and Trevor Back, miners and the three were barring and legging in the section. One bar had been put up on the centre leg and another was legged at the end of the bar. Edwards was putting a leg (prop) under the end of one of these bars and Back was about to put a leg under the next bar, which was hanging.

Taylor; standing alongside these men had turned away to get a chock, when without warning a slab of rock fell from the roof pinning Back by his leg, waist and right shoulder and completely covering Edwards. Taylor, on turning around found what had happened and raised the alarm.  Back was freed after about 20 minutes, then the rock was jacked up further and Edwards was found crushed, face down in a doubled-up position having been killed instantly by the fall. Back later spent a lengthy period of time in hospital and recovered from his injuries.

Case 5

About 1.40pm, 15 June, 1968, at the South Bulli Colliery, an electric locomotive was on the way to the surface hauling two skips. Each skip was loaded with stone and weighed about 12 tonnes and the train was manned by a driver and a shunter, both riding on the locomotive. When the train passed a tunnel leading off the main transport road, John Edward Phillips, 51 old, miner, jumped onto the coupling of the rear skip, apparently without the knowledge of the train crew. He had told another miner that he intended riding out to the surface on the train as he had a bad cold. The train had travelled about a further 200 – 300 metres up a steep grade when the wheels began to spin. The driver could not restore traction or hold the train and it started to gain speed in reverse. 

The crew, knowing the line to be clear behind them and that the train would derail at a set of points designed for this purpose, jumped clear of the train. The train then ran back down the line gathering speed and when about 500 metres down the line, derailed at the points. The crew, following the train, found that the derailment had brought down about 30 metres of roof. They could hear cries for help and they found a miner trying to free Phillips, who was caught under the rear skip. The wheels of this skip had severed both legs and the right arm below the elbow and Phillips had sustained serious head injuries. He died about one hour later whilst being taken to the surface. The miner helping at the scene had been with Phillips previously and had seen him jump onto the rear skip and then shortly after he had seen the runaway train go past, with Phillips clinging to the rear skip, unable to jump clear because of the narrow tunnel and the speed of the train.

Case 6

At 2.15pm, 23 July, 1974, a fitter, Robert Shephard, 45 old, was waiting at the drib room, 233 Panel, Coalcliff Colliery. A battery operated locomotive, weighing about eight tonnes, with a driver, shunter and one passenger came along proceeding to the 220 Panel. Shephard obtained a ride and with his tools got onto the locomotive, sitting on the driver’s right. The other passenger was seated on the driver’s left hand side and the shunter rode on the front with some drums of oil. The locomotive was travelling at about 10 kph and when approaching the 224 shunt, the wheels of the locomotive ‘split the points’ and one left hand wheel struck the end of the check rail. The caused the locomotive to rear up at the back, throwing off the driver and one passenger. Shephard, still holding on, was thrown up and then as his grip broke coming down, he was whipped underneath the side of the locomotive and landing on his right hand side was underneath the locomotive when it came down, crushing him into the rail bed. He was killed instantly. The shunter, who had clung to the locomotive, jumped off when it came to a rest and he and the driver and other passenger were not injured.

Case 7

On 20 September, 1974, at 12.30am, John Gilbert Beattie, 30 old, machineman, was working in the 317 Panel at the Darkes Forest Mine. He was standing on a miner placing a bar on centre on the hydraulic jacks on the miner, prior to jacking the bar up to the roof. He was assisted by others of the panel crew to carry out this normal mining procedure. The roof had been examined by the deputy between 11.40pm and 12.15am that night and found to be sound. 

Without any warning, a portion of the roof, about 25cm thick and five metres wide, feathering out to the edges, fell directly onto Beattie, crushing his head and upper portion of his body against the miner. It was immediately apparent to the panel crew that first aid would be of no avail for their workmate. 

Case 8

During underground operations on the morning of 9 January, 1978, high tension electrical cables supplying the power for Nos. 3 and 4 Areas in the Central District of the Darkes Forest Mine were damaged, resulting in the loss of power to these Areas. One of the cables when being dragged, had pulled a cable plug, damaging it at a four way box in No. 3 Area. An electrician, Anthony Patrick Thomas Meehan, 26 old, was instructed to commence joining cables which were to replace the damaged ones, in order to get power restored underground. 

At 2.10pm that day, another miner working in No. 3 Area, walked from the crib room to go to the toile. On walking past the out-through, which contained the four-way box, he noticed a cap light shining-upwards at an angle. When he did not receive a reply to his greeting, he directed his cap light into the cut-through and saw Meehan laying on his back between some high-tension cables near the box. He called for assistance and after the deputy had checked the area for live equipment, resuscitation was commenced and continued to the surface, however Meehan did not respond. 

After the investigation at the scene and the post mortem examination of Meehan, the sequence of events became clear. Meehan had apparently decided to work on the four-way box, or-broken cable plug and he had placed out his tools on the top of the box. Squatting between the high tension cables, facing the box, with his right hand on the broken cable plug, he had apparently placed his left hand on a protruding element from the damaged box, believing it to be safe. An electrical shock of 11,000 volts of high tension electricity

entered his left hand, searing the palm, passed along his arm, into his chest and along his right arm and made its exit from ‘his right thumb, at the broken cable plug. This caused Meehan to slump backwards and laying between the cables, he had appeared to have been asleep when first found. It was estimated that Meehan had received the fatal shock about 20 minutes before he was found.


Not all fatal accidents at mines are underground as the following two cases will illustrate. In the first case what appeared to be a simple unloading operation with mining machinery had fatal results and in the second case a combination of circumstances resulted in a double fatality when no danger was even suspected.

Case 9

On the morning of 11 October, 1974, a low-loader unit had gone to the Metropolitan Colliery, Helensburgh and a Massey-Ferguson four wheel drive front end loader, weighing about 12 tonnes had been loaded into the unit.  The machine had been on trial at the colliery and was being returned to the distributors. 

It was a rainy day and a bitumen road led up a steep grade from the Colliery. The low loader unit had commenced to climb the roadway and when at a sharp bend the driver found that the wheels had lost traction and he was forced to stop the vehicle. After a short time Robert George Payne, 54 old, came to the vehicle form the Collierty. He had been the plant operator and had used the front end loader and preparations were made to reverse it off the low loader unit.

While reversing, the front offside wheel of the machine slid off the low loader tray and the machine commenced to slide. Payne jumped from the seat of the front end loader, towards the downhill side and landing on the wet bitumen, he slipped and fell into a crouching position on the road. The machine toppled from the low loader tray and, turning completely over, fell onto Payne, infliction complete and massive crushing of his head. The machine then rolled over onto its side, leaving Payne laying on the roadway instantly killed by the squashing of his head.

Case 10

About 10.30am, 17 June, 1975, Gordon Maurice Harm, 40 old, boilermaker and Allan Dermott Naylor, 31 old, development engineer, were on the surface near the North Adit (entrance), Coalcliff Colliery. At this time two other men were working on a scaffold about three metres above the ground, engaged in boring a hole into the sandstone cliff face to secure a flying fox bracket. The sheer cliff was about 10 metres high and then it tapered off to about 45 degrees being covered at this part by scrub and trees.

Harm and Naylor were last seen standing about three metres apart and about six metres out from the cliff base. The men on the scaffold felt the passage of something passing between them but did not hear anything unusual due to the noise of the compressed air drill they were using. On looking around both Harm and Naylor were seen to be laying on the ground. They had suffered fatal injuries, Harm massive crushing of his skull and chest and Naylor massive crushing to the front of his skull, death being instantaneous in both cases. 

Subsequent inquiries found that during previous workings preparing ground for a coal dump above this cliff, a boulder about one metre in diameter, along with dirt and other rocks had been bulldozed into the scrub above the cliff. This boulder had become dislodged and rolling through the scrub down the slope, had fallen over the cliff. It had passed between the two men working on the scaffold and had struck Harm and Naylor, who had apparently come together to talk over the noise of the air compressor, killing them both. 

Showing the position of Harm and Naylor when killed by the falling rock


In the cases quoted above, too often the fatality has been caused by failure to observe the safety regulations. Working outside the area of supported roof, riding transport out of the mine early and insufficient roof supports used. On another occasion the death may be caused by a combination of freakish or unusual circumstances. A roof fall before roof supports can be placed, crushing by a miner boom when sheltering underneath it and in the last case quoted, the sudden death caused by a falling boulder on the mine surface.

It is the purpose of the Department of Mines Inspector to locate the cause of the accident and to devise means of preventing such an incident happening again. Some of the quoted cases have resulted in changes in the safety regulations but human nature, ever optimistic, manages to convince many miners that this could not happen to them, so risks continue to be taken. This lasts until the crushed or mangled body of a workmate is found and then as every man in the mine knows, no matter what the cause may be, or who is to blame, another coalminer’s life has suddenly ended.


Coal Mines Safety Advisory Committee ‘Roof Support in Coal Mines’ VCN Blight, Government Printer.

The cases quoted in this article have been extracted from the filed inquest reports at Scarborough, Corrimal and Helensburgh police stations.


Photos which appeared in the original story are courtesy of Coalcliff Mine, the Joy Company, and Scientific Section, Wollongong Police. The banner photograph to this online article is of an underground body recovery operation undertaken by NSW police in 2017.


The help, advice and assistance of the following persons is hereby acknowledged, for without their co-operation the preparation of this article would not have been possible. 

  • Mr B. S. Allan, Manager; Coalcliff Mine. 
  • Mr B. McGraw, Electrical Engineer, Coalcliff Mine. 
  • Sergeant 3rd Class K. G. Beacroft, Officer in Charge; Helensburgh. 
  • Sergeant 2nd Class B. O’Brien, Officer in Charge, Corrimal.
  • Senior Constable B. Kill, Corrimal
  • Senior Constable J. R. T Hamer, Austinmer.
  • Detective Sergeant 3rd Class H. Delaforce, Officer in Charge, Scientific Section, Wollongong 
  • Detective Constable 1st Class D. Wilson, Scientific Section, Wollongong.


This article was printed in 1979. Prior to his promotion to Sergeant, R. Lidden was the Officer in Charge of Scarborough Police Station. Scarborough is located within the coal mining region of the South Coast of NSW. During the years he spent in that area, he was required to investigate several mine fatalities. From research he made for these investigations he found there appeared to be a lack of specific information on this subject. This motivated him to write this article.

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