Experiencing the terror of being trapped underground

Report David Blackwood found himself in a 'hole' lot of trouble...

For 100 years miners across the country have been protected by an extraordinary organisation with the expertise to rescue people from caved in mines and gas-filled tunnels.

And it is little known that the UK-wide Mines Rescue can trace its origins back to Fife.

The very first Mines Rescue office was opened in Stenhouse Street in Cowdenbeath on November 4, 1910.

However, there is another, less celebrated anniversary this week. Today (Thursday) marks the 43rd anniversary of the disaster at Michael Colliery in Kirkcaldy, where nine people lost their lives.

And again, on May 10, 1973, at Seafield Colliery a further five men were killed. This gives an indication of the sheer levels of dangers faced by miners on a day to day basis in coalfields all across the UK.

So, to mark the centenary of Mines Rescue in Fife, I took a trip to the Crossgates training centre to experience what it feels like to be trapped in a mine (the technical term for this, rather unnervingly, is "entombed").

The training centre at Crossgates boasts 350 metres of underground tunnels that is uses to train emergency services in rescue techniques.

Trevor Brady, training instructor and 38-year member of Mines Rescue showed me around the system of tunnels, built to resemble a working coal mine. Trevor told me that some areas of the tunnels had been filled in to prepare for an exercise in which the fire service would dig people out.

It was only wide enough in some places to crawl on your hands and knees, and as we crawled through a tunnel held up with hydraulic chocks, Trevor told me to turn off my helmet lamp.

There was no light coming through from anywhere, so I was completely blind. There was also complete silence. I couldn't imagine what it would feel like to be trapped underground for a long period, as in the case of the miners currently trapped in Chile, and be unable to see your surroundings. Although I only turned my lights off for a few minutes, it was totally disorienting.

We also had a look at some equipment borrowed from mines across Fife to give the training tunnels an authentic feel, such as an old coal shearer which would cut the coal from the coalface before it was carried away by a conveyor.

I rounded off the experience by being winched out of a shaft and out into the blinding sunlight, none the worse for my experience.

However I felt I was given a sense of how much of an ordeal it would have been for the miners trapped in Kirkcaldy's two mining disasters.

Trevor saw first-hand the devastation of the cave-in at Seafield Colliery as a young mines rescue worker in 1973 and experienced the harrowing job of having to search for the bodies of dead men in the pit.

He said: "I was heavily involved in the rescue effort. In those days there was a bell system at the rescue brigade's men's homes and when it rang we would phone in and find out what was happening.

"There was a roof collapse and nine or 10 men were trapped. Luckily, we managed to get these lads out and then it was just a case of finding the bodies of the men who were killed and getting them out.

"I remember distinctly the whole community all coming together and supporting one another, and not just in Kirkcaldy. The whole mining community throughout Fife."

But the disaster at Michael Colliery five years earlier, caused by a coal fire in the pit, had an even larger death toll. Pictures of the colliery from the day show a huge cloud of gas hovering over the pit head.

Trevor said: "The concentration of the gas was so high that day, that seagulls were falling dead out of the sky."

He added that breathing apparatus for the rescuers had to be taken back and refilled 3500 times.

With the demise of mining in Scotland, Mines Rescue has now diversified into a variety of different fields, supplying rescue and health and safety training to emergency services.

No longer run by the government, Mines Rescue relies on this income to maintain its rescue capability.

Although mining disasters are less frequent, it still attends disasters where its expertise at digging casualties out of rubble is needed. Most recently, it played a large role in the rescue effort during the Stockline Plastics explosion of 2004.

Errol Parrish, operations manager for Scotland, said: "At the end of the day we all joined for the same reason. We all worked in mines and understood the dangers involved. It's a general thing that miners want to help one another."

To celebrate the centenary of Mines Rescue, a Centenary Dance is being held at Hill of Beath Club on December 3. Tickets are 18.