Fifty years since The Michael Colliery Fire
by Jillian Galbraith, NMMS Volunteer
On the morning of 9th September, 1967, many mining families in the area of East Wemyss, Fife must have heard with dread the news of a fire in the nearby Michael Colliery.
Located between Kirkcaldy and Leven, the colliery had a great record as the largest producer of coal in Scotland, employing an average of 2,598 miners. Major investment in the 1960s included the finest pithead baths in the UK. Extensive development of the pit over time led to a warren of 19 seams, dipping to a depth of 225 fathoms (more than 400 metres), with gradients as steep as 1:1 or 1:2. The Michael Pit was one of the few pits in Scotland liable to heating – the spontaneous combustion of coal with only the tiniest draft of air. A small fire, dealt with successfully by treatment with polyurethane foam, had broken out in late July that year.
The disastrous fire in September, possibly the worst in Scotland, caused the death of nine men. It was first detected at 2.30 am when 311 men were underground. Phones rang around the mine workings calling for evacuation. Men had to fight their way through dense fumes and smoke, visibility only ten feet, and dangerous levels of toxic gas (from PVC). Many became dizzy, were coughing, lost power in their legs, and helped each other up the steep gradients. The men formed chains, grabbing hands and belts and led each other out. In the Dysart Main, when an air door was opened, a blast of flame threw men to the floor and burnt their clothing. The enquiry into the fire later reported that the evacuation was completed in extremely difficult conditions in a commendably short time; it is a tribute to the very high standard of self-discipline exercised by all.
The Fire Brigade was eventually called at 5am and the Emergency Procedure put in place. Twenty rescue teams arrived from pits around Scotland. Finally only eleven men were not accounted for. After a tense wait two more men were found, but six bodies were recovered, asphyxiation being the cause of death. The three more missing were never discovered, in spite of searching until conditions had badly deteriorated.
Three of the brave miners in the disaster were David Hunter awarded the George Medal, William Shaw who received a Queen’s recommendation, and Andrew Taylor was awarded the Edward Medal posthumously.
Many important lessons were learned from the fire, leading to some mandatory changes. The use of polyurethane foam, which had caused the black smoke and noxious fumes, underground was labelled an unacceptable risk and discontinued. The checking system of men, monitoring who was underground, was improved as was the external telephone system. Sign posting in the mine, sometimes chalk on boards, had to be in luminous paint, and the most senior man on duty had responsibility to call an Emergency.
This terrible disaster brought mining at Michael to an end, with the loss of up to 1,500 jobs in an area of under-employment.
A memorial can be seen in East Wemyss.