Brunner Mine disaster: Descendant of miner killed 125 years ago remembers NZ’s worst workplace accident

The surviving miners went back in to rescue their mates.

The explosion tore through the West Coast mine. They knew many would not have survived.

By the next day, with police holding back frantic family members and friends, the first bodies were found.

Some of the scenes they encountered were grisly.

Sixty-five men were dead – husbands, fathers, sons, aged from 15 to 72.

The tragedy devastated Brunnerton, the coalmining town, and left behind 39 widows and 192 children.

Father-of-eight coal hewer John William Pattinson died reading his Bible.

English-born Pattinson – a 36-year-old Salvationist of the Brunnerton Corps known for accompanying the singing of the young soldiers in his charge with his concertina – had been taking a moment during his shift break.

The charred book was found open on his knee.

Today, Pattinson’s bible survived, preserved by his family, and is held in special climate-controlled conditions at the Salvation Army Territorial Archives and Museum in Wellington.

His great-grandson Kevin “Dinghy” Pattinson, himself a fifth-generation West Coast miner, has been to view the scorched bible.

“It’s pretty special really,” he says.

Dinghy Pattinson has overseen the re-entry into the Pike River Mine –about 20km away from Brunner – to try and recover the 29 men who died after an underground explosion tore through the mine at 3.44pm on Friday, November 19, 2010.

He sees the cruel irony that 125 years on, John Pattinson’s great-grandson is running the recovery efforts of another mine disaster.

“That was one of reasons why I took this role on – my personal background, the history, the West Coast,” Dinghy says.

“You have to learn from disasters – and New Zealand has had quite a few – because if you don’t remember, you end up in a complete circle and have future disasters with the same thing happening again.”

On Thursday, March 26, 1896, the local miners entered the Brunner coalmine, in the Grey Valley, at 7.45am to start their shift.

The day was calm and fine after torrential rain and strong winds had created disastrous flooding in the district.

A flooding river had caused gas to build up in the adjacent and unused Coal Pit Heath Mine and the gas was forced into the Brunner mine.

And at 9.30am, the mine exploded. Everyone inside the mine was killed.

A royal commission of inquiry later concluded that the initial explosion was caused by a blown-out shot – gelignite in a tube set off to blow the coal into pieces – in the dip section with abundant dust lying on the roads.

But those findings have often been contested.

As the series of coal-dust explosions intensified, they quickly swept through a large part of the workings.

Almost half of the mine’s entire workforce was killed.

Tomorrow at 9.20am, a service to commemorate the disaster, organised by Grey District Council, will take place at the Brunner Memorial site near Greymouth. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

Tamsin Evans, deputy chief executive delivery at Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, said that in the wake of the disaster the country came together through national fundraising efforts to help provide financial relief for those families

“Significantly, the disaster led to new laws being introduced to improve access to compensation for workers or families affected by workplace accidents,” Evans says.

“Remembering events like the Brunner Mine Disaster increases our awareness of moments in our collective history which have shaped modern New Zealand.”

Today, the Brunner Mine site is cared for by the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai, and is part of Tohu Whenua, a visitor programme that connects places rich in historical or cultural significance.

And like many West Coast locals tomorrow, Dinghy Pattinson will be pausing to reflect on those who died 125 years ago.

“It’s history, it’s New Zealand, it’s the West Coast … but it’s personal for me as well because it’s family,” he says.

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