Creswell Colliery Fire 1950

26/09/1950 - Creswell Colliery - Fire / Conveyer-belt accident

The following information has been obtained from the Healy Hero web site.

The fire started at the No. 2 transfer point about 3.45 a.m. on the 26th September, 1950, when 232 persons were underground, of whom 131 were employed in the South-west District beyond the scene of the fire. Of these, 51 persons escaped by way of the return airway. The remaining 80 persons were caught by the fumes and lost their lives. They were later certified as having died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

During the day shift of the 25th September 1950, it was observed that No. 2 trunk belt was scored. Hindley, a belt-maintenance man, was called to examine it. He found a groove, about 6 inches from the belt edge on the supplies track side, extending along the belt for a distance of nearly 300 yards. Along with others, Hindley examined the conveyor throughout its length but nothing was found that would account for the grooving. The conveyor was started up and Hindley inspected it at intervals during the shift. His last inspection of the belt was made at 8.30 p.m. A full shift of coal had been transported without mishap and arrangements were made for Hindley to stay overtime to repair the belt. These arrangements were cancelled, however, because the overman in charge of the district on the night-shift, finding that a length of coal on No. 65's face had not been filled off, gave instructions for the belt to continue running until the coal was cleared.

When Jos. Morris, the No. 3 transfer point attendant, arrived at his place of work about 11 p.m., he examined the No. 2 belt and estimated that the grooving extended for upwards of 200 yards and that for a length of 6 to 8 yards the belt was cut through. He said he was able to push his hand through the slit. The condition of the belt had clearly worsened since Hindley had made his inspection at 8.30 p.m. Nevertheless, the belt was started up and nothing untoward was observed until 3.10 a.m. when Morris signalled to W. H. Hird, the attendant who was stationed at the telephone, 70 yards on the outbye side of No. 2 transfer point, to stop the No. 2 belt Morris then told Hird via the pit-bottom exchange that the belt was torn and had a "trailing end." He arranged to travel outbye while Hird travelled inbye so that they could find where the damage to the belt had started. Morris set off , about 400 yards from No. 2 transfer point he encountered smoke, and when still 150 yards away he saw fire at the transfer chute and flames between the chute and the side wall of the roadway.

Hird travelled inbye no further than the 70 yards to the No. 2 transfer point where he saw the transfer hopper full of torn belting, looking, as he said, as "if three or four men each side had been laying it out." He returned to his telephone, informed the man in charge of the pit-bottom telephone exchange what had occurred and asked to be put in contact with Godfrey, the night overman in charge of the South-West District. During this time the No. 1 belt continued to run although Hird stated that he had signalled for it to stop. A few minutes later Hird saw fire in the chute at the transfer point and again telephoned to the pit bottom to ask for the electric power to be cut off and for help to be summoned. He had just completed this telephone call when Jos. Morris arrived and asked him if he knew the transfer point was on fire. Hird said he did and looked at his watch. It was then 3.45 a.m. From the time No. 2 belt was stopped until the fire was discovered, Morris had travelled nearly l,000 yards, including 350 yards up a drift rising at 1 in 9, examining the conveyor structure and belt on the way. Morris, asked Hird about the portable fire extinguishers. There were two at the nearby 59's junction. He applied the first with little effect, and the second failed to function.The fire station was on the inbye side of the No. 2 transfer point and soon became inaccessible because of the fire. When the station was first established it conformed to the normal and good practice at this colliery, in that it was sited on the intake side of the vulnerable point, because it then served the old 59's junction, which was 260 yards inbye from it. Even if the fire station had been on the outbye side of the transfer point, it is doubtful whether, in the circumstances of this fire, it would have altered the course of events. Before Hird and Morris discovered the actual fire, the strips of torn belting within the metal enclosure of the chute were so well alight and so relatively inaccessible, that portable fire extinguishers or buckets of sand or water were of little use. The burning of the torn belting developed so rapidly and fiercely that nothing short of a copious water supply at adequate pressure would have met the situation.

Immediately on receipt of Hird's telephone message about the fire, F. Kirk, the pit-bottom telephone-exchange attendant, sent telephone warnings of the fire into the South-west District and called for fire-fighting teams from other parts of the mine. The manager and undermanager were also informed. It was now 4 a.m. Messages were sent for the Central Rescue Brigades at Chesterfield, senior local officials of the National Coal Board, H.M. Inspectors of Mines and officials of the Mine-Workers' Unions. When the undermanager got to the pit, he spoke to the manager at his home by telephone, and then went underground. Having received assurances that the inbye workmen had been warned of the fire and were on their way outbye, he went straight to the scene of the fire. There he found that some members of the pit fire-fighting teams, led by I. Rodda, overman in charge of the North-West District, had been in action since shortly after 4 a.m. They had travelled in the "Paddy" in the return airway, taking with them a supply of fire-hoses and nozzles. The fire fighters at once coupled up their hoses to the water main but got little more than a trickle of water, which was quite ineffective. The flow of water was so small that their efforts with the hoses were described at the Inquiry as "just like standing in a garden watering flowers." Repeated telephone messages for an increased supply brought no improvement. It was now about 5.15 a.m.

The water-supply system had been provided at considerable cost in time and materials and was considerably above the standard found in many collieries of the day. Its failure at a critical time, indeed the only time it had ever been required to deal with an underground fire, proved disastrous and costly. The lack of an adequate water supply, under pressure, was due to a set of most unfortunate coincidences. The underground fire mains were supplied constantly with water by a 1-inch pipe from the No. 2 upcast shaft, but this quantity was only sufficient to maintain the dust-suppression sprays. For the much larger quantity of water needed for fire fighting, reliance was placed on the 5 inches diameter rising main in No. 1 shaft. During the night shift, this main was continuously fed with water from the Top Hard pump but during the other two shifts the water supply was fed into the main from surface tanks through suitable valves. Unfortunately, for the first time for many years, the Top Hard pump failed to start at the commencement of the night shift and the fitters who examined it considered that it could not be repaired during the shift. Although the pump-man informed Godfrey, the night overman, of the breakdown, neither the pump-man nor the informed any surface official and so nothing was done to adjust the surface valves to ensure that the main was fed with water from the surface tanks.

In the meantime supplies of portable fire extinguishers sand and stone dust were collected and sent to the scene of the fire and used very effectively. So much so, indeed, that the impression was gained that the main fire had been got under control, with the result that a message was sent to the surface that the fire was nearly extinguished. Unhappily, this was not the case. The steam and smoke in the roadway had reduced the visibility to practically nil and had masked the spread of the fire along the roadway, an extension which, no doubt, had been accelerated when the burning No. 2 belt, still under tension, broke and the burning end sprang inbye.

At 5.20 a.m. the rescue brigade men from Chesterfield Rescue Station arrived at the fire, but because of the lack of an adequate supply of water under pressure, they were unable to do any really effective fire-fighting work. While the other fire-fighters continued their efforts with the portable fire-extinguishers and the little water still available, the rescue brigade men donned their liquid-air apparatus and tried to get past and ahead of the fire in an attempt to prevent it from spreading further inbye, but the heat was too intense and the attempt failed. By the time a reasonable supply of water was available, the fire in the chute at No. 2 transfer point had burned itself out, and the fire had spread a long way inbye. Water was still necessary, however, to cool down the hot material and smouldering wood. Another attempt was made to reach the advancing fire by working forward along the roadway, but because of damage to roof supports, the effect of heat and water on the strata and the deterioration of roof and sides, conditions became too dangerous to allow the attempts to continue.

While all this had been going on, several men from the inbye workings in the South-west District had come out safely by way of the main-return airway. Then at about 5 a.m., another inbye workman, J. W. Turner, who had been working on 65's face, came out of 59's loader gate. He had travelled by the main return to 59's right-hand return, over the overcast on the main intake and then along 59's right side face. On his way he had opened the doors at the overcast and saw the fire raging underneath it. He was in a distressed condition and reported that there were more men behind him. The fire had thus travelled at least 125 yards inbye in about 1.1/4 hours. It was now realised that the inbye men were not getting out as expected and rescue teams were at once sent in to explore the main return. They found one body about 500 yards inbye from 59's left return gate and brought it to the fresh-air base. Artificial respiration was tried but there was no response. Eventually, the rescue teams brought out two other bodies and reported that they had seen ten more. By this time the smoke in the main return at 59's left side return gate was extremely dense and had a very bad effect upon the eyes of the rescue men. Moreover, the effect of the smoke-laden air on the canary carried by the rescue teams showed that the atmosphere was so deadly that it was impossible to conceive of anyone being alive in the inbye workings. It was decided that, except for an exploration of the main return towards the shaft, rescue work should be stopped for the time being. The return airway was explored towards the shaft bottom but the rescue team reached the stable slit without finding anyone.

A conference of representatives of the National Coal Board, the workmen's Unions and the Inspectorate was now called to discuss the position and decide future action. It came to the unanimous conclusion that, since no one could be alive on the inbye side of the fire and since the dangerous condition of the roadway precluded fire-fighters from reaching the fire-front to prevent the fire from spreading further inbye, the only possible way of extinguishing the fire and of avoiding the risk of a firedamp explosion, was to seal off the district. The sites of the seals were agreed and arrangements made for improving the haulage facilities to transport the necessary building materials inbye. An examination of the main return at the stable slit indicated that the smoke was now much less dense than formerly and that the effect on the eyes was less severe. It seemed as if the intensity of the fire had somehow become suddenly reduced. A further examination was then made of the scene of the fire and of the main return at 59's left gate. The outbye end of the fire area had considerably cooled down but because of the dangerous condition of the roadway the advance of the fire inbye along the belt road could not be ascertained. A second examination revealed that the smoke in the return was definitely less dense.

More bodies were found just beyond the point where the ten bodies were lying, and, altogether, 47 were recovered. Rescue teams were sent to explore the inbye slits connecting intake and return. In each case the rescue men reported that they were unable to travel these slits because of heat, smoke, and deterioration of roof conditions. This information not only made it inadvisable to send rescue parties further away from the fresh-air base but also emphasised the need to build the seals as quickly as possible. By this time the outbye haulage arrangements were functioning properly, and sand bags and supplies were ready to come inbye in quantity. 'Shef' told his wife about the miner helping with the sealing off, knowing that he was sealing his father in.

In addition to recovering the 47 bodies, the rescue men located 27 others, leaving six more to be found. These remaining bodies were not recovered until the l0th August, 1951, almost a year after the fire.

Sir Andrew Bryan concluded, in his report, by paying tribute to the heroism of many, known and unknown, among the workmen, officials, management and rescue teams during the many distressing hours immediately following the fire. In all these operations, as in the earlier work, the rescue teams drawn from a wide area, including Ilkeston, did a fine job, working with diligence and courage, and performing hard and hazardous tasks without any untoward incident. It was also noted that some teams travelled as much as l,500 yards away from the fresh-air base, thus making a total journey of 3,000 yards.

This accident claimed the lives of 80 people.