On this day: Beaconsfield miners rescued

By Karen Young 7 November 2013
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Seven years ago today, miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell escaped to the surface after 14 days trapped underground.

Seven years ago today, miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell escaped to the surface after 14 days trapped underground.

ON 9 MAY 2006, Brant Webb and Todd Russell were freed from their underground cage, after spending two weeks trapped in the collapsed Beaconsfield goldmine, on the northern coast of Tasmania.

Two weeks earlier on 25 April, an earthquake of approximately 2.3 on the Richter-scale caused a mine collapse that killed one miner, Larry Knight, and trapped Brant and Todd in the cage of a cherry-picker-like vehicle that had a floor area of just 1.5 cubic metres. Fourteen other miners who were underground at the time escaped unscathed.

Following the collapse, the fate of the trapped pair remained unknown as the mine was secured and their families prepared themselves for the worst.

A tense two weeks at Beaconsfield goldmine

Heat-sensing cameras were employed for five days after the quake, and on 30 April rescuers ventured deep into the unstable mine and found the two men – or at least heard them reply. They were alive, but partially buried in rubble. While the first rescuers retreated to a more stable location, communication was established via a microphone placed near to the rock pile the miners were trapped under.

Basic supplies such as water, blankets and glowsticks were delivered to the men on 1 May via a 12m plastic tube, followed by a slow supply of goods, such as music devices, a camera and food. Then came a strict food plan to improve the miner’s physical condition – beginning with enriched drinks and eventually progressing to hot omelettes.

For the next eight days the long pipe was their connection to the outside world. Rescue attempts were hampered by fears of further rock falls, and rock five times harder than concrete made the rescue timeline unpredictable. Kept up-to-date via a constant stream of reports from the media, many Australians sat on the edge of their seats as rescuers inched closer.

Local psychologist Dr Bev Ernst was taken to the site to help to maintain the men’s mental wellbeing. “We usually deal with trauma after the event, not whilst it is happening,” says Bev. She instructed paramedics to be honest – so the men would trust the voices talking to them – and carefully dolled out messages from family members. The idea was to “to drip feed positive messages from family and friends to keep them going,” Says Bev. Highly emotional messages from family were kept in reserve for potentially tougher times.

The sounds of freedom and farewell

In the early morning of 9 May, a church bell – silent since the end of World War II – rang out to announce the end of the rescue effort and the men emerged looking remarkably intact. But, the spirit of the celebrations was restrained as the rescue ended on the day of dead miner Larry Knight’s funeral. Larry was farewelled by the sound of a motorcycle guard of honour and with the newly freed Todd Russell in attendance.

Bev says the surviving miners “were almost certainly going to develop Post Traumatic Stress syndrome following such an ordeal – it was a matter of working out how to minimise the impact as much as possible.” Retelling their story has reportedly helped the rescued men cope.

The event put Beaconsfield on the map, where the Beaconsfield Mine Heritage Centre features a reconstruction of the mine collapse site. Tourism to the township has increased to 40,000 visits a year since the rescue. Since the rescue, Webb has been involved in preventing workplace accidents and Russell is currently the Beaconsfield fire brigade chief.

Text by Karen Young.