As another Anzac Day (25th April 2006) ended and most Australians were retiring for the night, the gold miners at Beaconsfield, Tasmania, were hard at work underground. At 9.26 pm a minor earthquake triggered a rock fall. Fourteen men scrambled to safety but grave fears were held for three men, Larry Knight, 44, Brant Webb, 37 and Todd Russell, 34.
Brant and Todd had been working in a basket at the end of a vehicle called a telehandler. Larry was driving it.
The next day a remote controlled earth mover began clearing rock near the site of the collapse. Larry’s body was found. Of the other two men there was no sign. Nobody knew that the two men were trapped in a cage, buried in rubble and with a roof of unstable rocks above them. They managed to extricate themselves from the rocks by cutting at each other’s clothing and boots with Stanley knives. The space they were in was so small they couldn’t lie flat. Groundwater seeping through the rocks was collected in their helmets for drinking water. As rescuers began blasting, more rocks fell on the two men so that they both wrote farewell messages to their families on their clothes.
However things changed on the 30th April when two rescuers yelling through the rockfall heard a call for help from the two trapped men. By this time the whole country was glued to their TV sets watching with bated breath, hoping against hope that the men would be freed.
By May 1 it was possible to send fresh water, food and communications equipment to the men through a tube but it was considered too dangerous to physically get them out. Drilling continued through quartz five times harder than cement until on May 6 the machine was only metres from the men. Then it had to be dismantled and removed. After 14 nights underground the men were finally rescued. First Brent and then Todd.
Most Australians can recall the sight of the two men walking out of the lift cage punching their fists in the air, wearing their fluoro jackets and lit miner’s helmets. We all watched as they switched their safety tags to “safe” on the mine out boards before embracing family and heading to the hospital.
So it was that four years later, in February 2010, we camped in the Beaconsfield Showground.
We had been travelling around Tasmania for a month after crossing Bass Strait on the Spirit of Tasmania. It was our last night before returning to the mainland so we took the opportunity to visit Beaconsfield. We needed the help of some locals to find the show ground but eventually we chose our camp site. It was quite hot that afternoon but under a big oak tree we had a cool breeze, lots of shade and the anticipation of seeing the notorious mine.
Next day we left our campsite and parked near the Mining Museum. The ruins of the original mine were still visible. After it closed in 1914 the mine flooded and collapsed. It was only when the new mine opened in 1995 that the water could be controlled, this time using electrical power instead of steam. Further on there was a viewing platform of the current mine where you could see the workers’ tags on the board showing who was underground and who wasn’t. The lift where Brant and Todd came out after their rescue was there in front of our eyes. While we watched, a miner used a forklift to put a drum of diesel into the lift before it went down below.
The display depicting the rescue of Brant and Todd and the death of Larry was very comprehensive. If you dared you could crawl into a tunnel and stand up in the space replicating that of the trapped miners. It was extremely claustrophobic so I didn’t stay there very long. At least I had a choice.
Since we visited in 2010 the mine has closed. In 2012 it was considered no longer viable at current gold prices. However the museum has gone from strength to strength and attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year.