Seafield Mining Disaster: The night all eyes were on Kirkcaldy

Miners from the day shift coming up from Seafield colliery at the time of the disaster in May 1973.
Miners from the day shift coming up from Seafield colliery at the time of the disaster in May 1973.

It was 45 years ago today that disaster struck Kirkcaldy, when five men were killed after a roof collapsed at Seafield pit.

Then one of the biggest employers in the area, men from across Fife were bussed in for their shift on a daily basis, to what was one of the largest undersea mines in Europe.

At the time of the accident 2100 people were employed below ground, with another 300 on the surface.

The attention of the UK media immediately turned towards Kirkcaldy, as all eyes across the nation fell on Seafield.

An inquiry held later that year by the department of trade and industry heard witness testimonies from men working at the time, including from those who were trapped.

On the evening of May 10, 1973, disaster struck, as the roof of D22, a steep seam which stretched out under the Firth of Forth, suddenly fell in, trapping nine men deep under ground.

The view of the fall from the top end of the face.

The view of the fall from the top end of the face.

At around 6.45pm, a large section of the roof gave way, collapsing and then sliding downward.

As one witness, John McCartney, told the inquiry he heard two falls further down, before the rock above his head gave way.

“The whole roof slid down the hill, taking the chocks and almost everything with it.”

Another, David Dickson, told the inquiry of what he saw: “I had seen the roof moving and the chocks beginning to topple over.

Fife Free Press dated May 18, 1973.

Fife Free Press dated May 18, 1973.

“I could see the chocks above me starting to topple over.

“I must have turned to hide myself. That is the last thing I remember.

“I must have been knocked unconscious or something till I came to. We were completely buried.”

Of the 169 numbered supports holding up the ceiling, 65 in the middle had been toppled, from number 155 nearer the top of the slope, all the way down to 90 had been swept away by the falling rock.

A diagram showing the locations of those found at the scene.

A diagram showing the locations of those found at the scene.

The fall itself was up to eight feet high in places, with nine men now trapped in darkness, deep under the Firth of Forth.

Shortly after 7pm, it was reported to surface control that a heavy fall in D22 and the recovery process began.

The workers sprung into action as they set about freeing their trapped colleagues.

The first to emerge was John McCartney.

Astonishingly he had escaped unaided despite being seriously injured in the fall.

Upon arriving he was able to give rescuers the location of some of the trapped men, based on the voices he had heard.

John McCartney, left, at the public inquiry in August 1973.

John McCartney, left, at the public inquiry in August 1973.

He would spend weeks in hospital recovering from his injuries.

By around 10.40pm the body of James Comrie was found close to support 115, and close by Robert Henderson was heard calling for help and was freed by 12.30am.

However, despite being given medical attention he later died.

But the work continued into the night in the hope of finding more survivors.

And their work would in some cases pay off.

James Holmes, James Todd, David Dickson and Edward Downs were brought out alive at around 1.30am.

Unfortunately Holmes died soon afterwards, and the body of Guthrie was discovered.

No trace could be found of Thomas Kilpatrick, who was presumed dead near the lower end of the fall.

It would be almost a month before they were able to recover his body.

In the end, the lives of five men were lost in the disaster; Kilpatrick, Comrie, Henderson, Holmes, and Guthrie.

By August there would be an inquest into the disaster, lasting several weeks.

The report issued afterwards highlighted the unsuitability of the supports for such a steep dig, and that the most stable supports should have been reserved for that area.

A number of safety recommendations were made on the back of the report.

‘I wouldn’t go back down there again’

Speaking 45 years on from the disaster, survivor John McCartney told of the moment the ceiling collapsed.

“When it first fell, I got my head out and had a look up and down. I managed to sort my light, my helmet was out of place.

“It was dark, with bits of light sticking up through where the guys had their lights on.

“I knew that once there was a fall, there’s always another fall at the back of it, so I went back in the hole and waited for that and heard the second one.”

Severely injured, John didn’t yet suspect the nature of his injuries, but was determined to try and get help.

“I was compressed in a sitting position when it stopped. I thought I’d broken my shoulder.

“So I got out, went straight to the face-side. I walked right up. I could see the top, where it had broken off. Everything else had gone down the way, so I thought there’d be a hole at the top to get out.

“But no, it was blocked.

“But I went up the face-side, until I got to the top, then I couldn’t get through because it was all blocked off with stone. But I managed to get over the top of it, and started making my way further up.

“That was when two or three guys picked me up near the top of the fall.

“Once they get hold of you, you just kind of ease off a bit because you know you’re safe.

“They had me on a stretcher looking at me, and I told them I thought I’d broken my shoulder.

“They got my t-shift off and I heard one guy go ‘ooooooft’, but it was just all scratches, and it wasn’t obvious then.

“They were asking me who I’d seen and what happened. I was up just after 9pm.

“Jimmy Simpson, the manager, him and Colin Fox, were asking. I told them who I could hear and who was speaking. They were all still speaking when I left, except one guy.

“It must have fallen again after I left.

“I was in hospital for a couple of weeks, with a fractured spine and a punctured lung, there was one doctor that said initially, ‘we’ll see about getting you back to work’, but I was off for five months.

“I was on my own feet, but I was kind of hunched and I couldn’t straighten up right. I spent a couple of months rehabilitating at Bridge of Earn.

“They visited me in the hospital and said that they would promote me to deputy, which means you’re responsible for a section, but I said that I wouldn’t go back down there again.

“I started back in December, and worked in the time office because it was light work.

“The next ten years there were spent working on the surface, until I left in 1985.”