The Great Knockshinnoch Mine Rescue
By Gillian Sharpe - BBC Scotland
7 September 2015
It was one of the worst disasters in Scotland's mining history yet somehow 116 men were rescued from a coal mine which had collapsed while they were working hundreds of feet below ground.
Thirteen men died at the Knockshinnoch Castle Colliery at New Cumnock in Ayrshire when an area the size of a football pitch collapsed on 7 September 1950, under the weight of moss and peat after heavy rain.
But 116 were brought to the surface on the third day in one of the most remarkable rescues ever attempted.
Now aged in his 90s, Willie Lopez was one of the trapped miners.
"Lots of things go through your mind, especially your family," he says. "At times you just couldn't think.
"What's going to happen to us? Will I ever get out of here? Is this the end - a sad end?"
During his time trapped underground his thoughts were with his father-in-law who was in another part of the mine. He did not make it out.
Mr Lopez says: "When I saw this deluge of moss and peat, I thought to myself, who could survive in a thing like this because the force would be that great, it would have taken everything in front of it, everything and everybody."
At the site of the disaster itself nature has taken over once again and in the fields and hills there is little sign of what happened 65 years ago.
It was one of the worst disasters in Scotland's mining history
For a few days, New Cumnock became the focus of worldwide attention as the fate of the miners seemed to hang in the balance.
On the surface, the sheer scale of the disaster was becoming clear - a huge hole had opened up.
"We came over that hill," says Dan Park, pointing into the distance.
He was an apprentice electrician engineer at the time and volunteered to help with the rescue. He knew many of those trapped below.
Today, there is little evidence of the mine collapse 65 years ago
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Mr Park says: "I was really shocked when I saw a big black hole and the actual field had gone."
Miraculously, given the weight of sludge which collapsed into the mine, a phone line survived, seen by some local people as a bit of divine intervention. It enabled a daring rescue to be planned.
The idea was to make a connection between Knockshinnoch and an abandoned mine next door but the problem was the presence of gas.
"The only people that could dig that hole were the miners on the Knockshinnoch side," says local author Ian McMurdo.
His book on the disaster, "Knockshinnoch: The Greatest Mines Rescue in History," is to be published shortly.
He grew up in the area and his father, John, was one of the trapped miners.
He explains if the rescue brigades working in the gas-filled atmosphere of the abandoned mine had started digging it could have caused an explosion, so the miners themselves had to "dig through with pick axes, shovels and bare hands".
"Not so much a long-shot more mission impossible but they had to go for it," says Mr McMurdo.
The gas remained a problem.
Rescuers brought down respiration equipment, which had not been designed for the situation and the miners had not even been trained to use.
It would prove their only way out as they were led by the rescue brigades through the gas-filled tunnels which separated them from the surface and safety.
"116 of the 116 were rescued, the last man up was at five to midnight on Saturday night," continues Mr McMurdo.
"That was unprecedented and it's never happened since. Knockshinnoch is one of a kind."
The disaster was, of course, also hard on those waiting for news on the surface above.
Ian McMurdo's mother, Jean, has her own memories of that time. A young mum, she had seen her husband off to his backshift on what seemed like an ordinary day.
As it became clear that it was anything but, she comforted herself by listening to the news bulletins on the radio.
Jean McMurdo says: "I didn't doubt for a minute that these men would be brought up from the bowels of the earth," she says.
"You don't let yourself think the worst, do you? I didn't. I don't know how I would have coped."
Her husband's experience trapped underground changed him, she says. He became quieter.
"In the middle of the night he would get up and he would say, 'I've got to get out of here' and he would dress and go out," she explains.
"This is claustrophobia. So it showed in different ways."
A plaque commemorates the Knockshinnoch mining disaster
"Life went on and we pretended it had never happened because we didn't talk about it."
The story of what happened at Knockshinnoch not only still resonates with local people. It has been used over the years by those who teach present-day rescue techniques.
"They got the men out just in the nick of time," says Andrew Watson, commercial and operations director with Mines Rescue Service in the UK. He was born in New Cumnock.
"Huge admiration," he says of the Knockshinnoch rescuers.
"They set the standard and that's the standard we're operating to now.
"It's the quiet modesty of what the people achieved and we need to make sure that's never forgotten."