Fifteen Men Cut Off by a Wall of Flame, 1947

type: Safety - mine disasters

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Fifteen Men Cut Off by a Wall of Flame in West Calder Accident

Miner Entombed in Scots Pit Explosion

Battle with Underground Fire to Reach Tapped Men

Smoke Hampers Rescuers

Round the pithead at Burngrange almost the entire adult population of West Calder stood last night in a biting wind anxiously awaiting new of fifteen miners entombed behind a wall of fire 450 feet underground. They had seen the body of one man, John McGarty (26), single, of Limefield Avenue, West Calder, brought up to the surface. Another young miner, Tom Reid, a Bevin Boy, who had been injured in the underground explosion, was lying in hospital. Mine rescue teams and detachments of the National Fire Service from surrounding towns and from Edinburgh battled desperately to defeat the underground fire and reach the trapped men.

EERIE SCENE AT PITHEAD - The explosion occurred between half-past eight and nine o'clock, before the end of the back shift. McGarty was killed almost instantaneously and his mate Reid injured about the head. Other miners in the shift recovered McGarty's body and carried Reid to the cage. He was raised to the surface and rushed to hospital. News of the accident quickly spread around West Calder and while men and women were trooping along the road to the mine fire engines were racing to the scene. The fumes from the scene of the explosion could be smelt through the ventilators at the pithead. It was an eerie scene as the fire enginges and rescue lorries, with blazing headlights, rushed into action. Hoses were run out by the firemen, who had to lower a fire pump in the cage to the gallery, 450 feet below. Their difficulties were increased by the fact that the explosion had occurred nealy 1000 yards along one of the main galleries.

FIREMEN USED RESPIRATORS - The first rescue squad was driven back by smoke, but others equipped with breathing apparatus quickly followed them. Talk among the waiting crowd was hushed when two men appeared carrying a stretcher with a blanket covering the figure on it. Burngrange Pit is owned by Scottish Oils, Ltd. About 100 men were working when the explosion occurred, and those who escaped immediately volunteered to help in the rescue effort. Mrs Gaughin, wife of one of the trapped men, stood with her son at the pithead for two hours and was taken to the office to await news. Meanwhile a crowd of 300, including the wives and mothers of many of the men on the shift who had remained below after the explosion in the hope of helping their stricken comrades, waited silently and anxiously at the shaft.

MANAGING DIRECTOR IN RESCUE PARTY - Mr Robert Crichton, managing director of Scottish Oils, Ltd., was among the rescue party. Wearing his pitman's helmet and with a scarf knotted round his throat he talked to a reporter of "The Press and Journal" just before he went down in the cage. "We have had very little trouble in our pits," he said. "We can deal with the things we know," he added "but this time we are up against the unknown." The dead man was a member of a family of eight brothers. He remained in the pit throughout the war years. The others all saw active service and came through the war unscathed.

Source: Aberdeen Journal, 11th January 1947

BRAVERY IN WEST CALDER EXPLOSION - Rescuer Gets Edward Medal - DAVID BROWN, the pit overman who led several rescue attempts after the explosion at the Burngrange shale mine. West Calder, Midlothian in January 1947, when 15 men were killed, has been awarded the Edward Medal for his gallantry. There were 76 persons underground, says the official account in the London Gazette, when fire damp was ignited by an open acetylene cap lamp and the explosion was followed by fires. Brown went down with a fireman and tried to explore the narrow works, but dense smoke drove them back. Brown tried again alone but failed to get through. A third time he was forced to go back. He then begged to take the breathing apparatus two N.F.S. men wore so that he and another trained member of the rescue team could go farther in, but they were beaten back. Falls and further fires eventually destroyed any hope of saving the men. Last month it was announced that one of the rescue team, James McArthur, had received the King's commendation for brave conduct.

The Scotsman, 14th January 1948

WEST CALDER PIT HEROES REWARDED - The Carnegie Hero Fund Trustees at Dunfermline yesterday awarded an honorary certificate and grants of £25 and £15 repectively to David Brown, mine oversman, 82 Parkhead Crescent, and James McArthur, shaleminer, 12 Kirkgate, both of West Calder, Midlothian, who on January 10, 1947, attempted to rescue a number of workmen who had been trapped following an explosion in a colliery at West Calder. Brown has already been awarded the Edward Medal and McArthur received the King's Commendation.

The Scotsman, 30th January 1948