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'The screams were terrible': The Markham pit tragedy 50 years on

News'The screams were terrible': The Markham pit tragedy 50 years on

It was like a scene from a disaster movie …or, as a rescue worker put it, a war zone.

Thirty men arriving for the early morning shift at Markham Colliery in Derbyshire had squeezed into a two-tier cage for their regular 1,330ft descent.

But little more than halfway down the brake failed. More than half would perish.

The Queen sent her sympathies to the bereaved. But an official inquiry would reveal a catalogue of errors.

Markham Colliery, the deepest in the county, was already no stranger to tragedy.

Since opening in 1882 more than 200 pitmen had died, including almost 70 in three incidents in 1938 alone.

Many assumed safety measures were put in place with the nationalisation of the industry after the Second World War. But such assumptions were brutally disproved 50 years ago today, on July 30 1973.

By 6.20am 105 miners had already been lowered into the pit.

The overlap rope cage carrying 15 men on the top deck and another 15 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.

But nothing happened and the cage plummeted 600ft to the bottom. The crash broke legs, shattered skulls and sent
splintered ribs through vital organs.

The screams of the dying and injured mixed with billowing clouds of dust as those miners already underground rushed to the tangle of metal, wood and bodies.

They could see their horribly injured comrades, but the gates of the cage were buckled and would not open. For 15 minutes they worked frantically with spanners, crowbars and their bare hands.

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.”

Finally, the gates were weakened by hacksaws and torn off – and the dead, dying and injured were brought out.

One grime-streaked rescuer said: “They were packed like sardines in that cage.”

One 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 didn’t stop to 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.”

He was helped by another qualified first aider, miner George Stephenson, who had been at the pit bottom.

After each man was tended by the two first aiders they was hurried away to another shaft and whisked to the surface.

George 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 dead on their stretchers, but one reached out and touched my hand.”

Miner Matthew Burton was due to descend in the cage but by chance had stopped to chat about the cabaret in the club the previous night.

He recalled: “We went down another shaft. Men were being carried past us on stretchers. They were groaning. One poor lad was moaning ‘My legs, my legs’. They were all badly injured – some had blood coming from their mouths. I knew them all – they were all my mates.”

Another miner, Trevor Vallance, told how he saw rescuers using hacksaws to get to the trapped men: “The men were on their haunches lying backwards with their legs bent underneath them.”

By 8am the dead and injured were on their way to the Royal Hospital in Chesterfield. Tragically, 13 men had died immediately on impact with another five dying later in hospital. A further 11 were hospitalised with very serious injuries.

Families had followed the ambulances.

One newspaper reported: “Silent and white-faced they were shepherded to a room near the operating theatres.

“Then at one o’clock, six hours after the tragedy, came the news they were all waiting for.” Chaplain James Crossley said: “It was an awful moment, full of emotion. Women broke down as officials began reading out the names of the dead.”

The Coal Board’s Robert Dunn said the tragedy was a “further chapter in recent events which have bedevilled the industry.”

Messages of sympathy came from Buckingham Palace, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and TUC chief Vic Feather.

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