At the time of the explosion the Combs Pit was being worked by a single shift. The men went down at 6 a.m. and returned to the surface at 2 p.m. each day. On the day of the explosion there were 146 people in the mine including the undermanager, two deputies and fifty seven boys.
The explosion took place a few minutes after midday during the men’s dinner hour. The men in Combs pit used safety lamps but there were five or six paraffin lamps burning during each shift in porches leading to the Wheatley workings. Naked lamps were also used at various lamp stations in the pit.
On the 4th May the manager Jesse Taylor had retired and William Scott took his place. On the evidence,
Mr. Scott did not know of the existence of the fault or the fact that gas came from it. The explosion ignited some wood on the landing or staging and the conductors from the Wheatley Seam to the Blocking bed,
25 yards below.
In the opinion of Mr. Wardell, all the lives were lost by suffocation. Nine men got out of the pit alive on the evening of the day after the explosion. Three of these died but one was well enough to be called as witness at the inquiry, he was Joseph Mallinson. On the 4th July he was working with ten or eleven others in Smith’s ending for about two hours after the explosion not knowing that something had happened. On making for the pit he met ‘a white mist’ which extinguished all their lights. All the men seemed to have returned to Smith’s ending and six were brought out alive 30 hours after the explosion. Mallinson said that he never lost consciousness but amused himself riding backwards and forwards on a tram until he was rescued. Ten bodies were found in Smith’s ending.
The Thornhill Parish Magazine gave an account of the disaster:-
“We will tell the sad tale as correctly as we can, and quite simply, without attempting to stir again the agonies of those awful days. Just after noon on
Tuesday those who were near the Combs Pit were aware of an unusual sound below, which was followed by the issue of smoke and flame from the pit mouth.
James Scargill had just gone down in the cage to work. The signal to the pit bottom was at once rung, but no answer came. A message was sent instantly to
Mr. Scott, the manager. Before his arrival a fresh burst of smoke and foul air from the pit mouth brought decisive proof of the terrible explosion.
Already the news of an accident had begun to spread and people in agonies of alarm were running to the place. Upon his arrival, Mr. Scott and three others entered the cage and were lowered, but were quickly drawn up again having almost immediately encountered the fumes of afterdamp. A second attempt to descend was quickly made and a lower depth was reached, but a second time the party were obliged to give order to pull up again, and as they came up to the top they were overtaken by an immense cloud of smoke.
The lookers on, now being numerous, shrieked in terror. The brave men, baffled in their attempts to descend the shaft by the pumping shaft, and succeeded in reaching the pit only to discover that an explosion had undoubtedly taken place and a fire was raging not far off.
Almost immediately the lifeless bodies of James Scargill, Samuel Croft, Rowland
Garthfitt and Walter Field were found and at once brought to the surface.
By this time fears had become almost certainties and it was realised that the lives of all in the pit were in serious danger. The hope that some of the miners might find their way out of the pit at the end was destroyed when the news was brought that firedamp was issuing from the opening there. Further attempts to penetrate the mine were all fruitless and about three o’clock were for a time suspended.
Messages meantime had been sent to the mining engineers in the neighbourhood who began to arrive in the course of the afternoon. Several times these gentlemen accompanied one of our men descended the pit, but they found it was full of suffocating fumes attempts to explore were abandoned. The mouth of the pit was closed and water was turned into the old bed below the present workings to extinguish the fire.
Then began a night of sickening suspense. Nothing could be done. Poor women who had been standing near the pit for hours during the afternoon retired home, while some could not be induced to leave the place. All hope of saving any alive from the pit seemed to have been given up. The crowds of strangers who had been assembling in hundreds and thousands during the afternoon began to melt away leaving the few behind whose painful interest in the fate of the imprisoned miners would not let them go.
Among the earliest to arrive in the afternoon was
Archdeacon Brooke and he and Mr. Wheelhouse spent many hours at the pit amongst the agonised wives and mothers who were assembled there. The Rector was in London, a telegram was dispatched to him summoning him back at once.
He received it about 6 o’clock and started home by the next train arriving at Thornhill about five o’clock on the following morning.
The mining engineers and Mr. Scott were in consultation and decided that it was impossible to resume the exploration for the present but at 11 o’clock after the ventilation of the pit had been restored a party of explorers descended. Among the men were some sub-inspectors of Mines, some mining engineers including Mr. John Nevin, Mr. T.R. Maddison, Mr. H. Child, Mr. Scott and others.
The explorers found the pit free of firedamp and made arrangements for a thorough examination. They spent some hours in their work and returned to the top about three o’clock.
They had found eighty six bodies including Amos Hawksworth and three others who had been seen the evening before. They were in groups, some of them looking as of calmly asleep, some on their knees, one with a piece of chalk in his hand, with which he had written on a corve a message to his wife. The men and boys seem to have come back from the workings when they were aware of something amiss and met the fatal fumes which suffocated them.
A second party of explorers followed at about half past three to complete the examination of the pit and it was not long after this that with the news that thrilled the hearts of the crowds around the pit as soon as the purport was known. A man had been found still breathing. The doctor descended with restoratives and all with anxious expectation. Everything was made ready for the reception of any who might be brought alive to the pit top and medical men were to hand to render service.
Soon, Henry Wraithmell, of Thornhill Edge, was brought up alive, the John Mallison of Middlestown, then John Garthfitt of Thornhill Edge and afterwards
Fred Senior of Thornhill, Squire Shires of Middlestown, Richard Wood, and Willie Lightowler of Thornhill and John Heywood of Middlestown. This was the whole number brought out alive from the pit out of the hundred and forty six who went down to their work on Tuesday morning.
Of the nine above mentioned Joshua Ashton died two hours later and John
Heywood, though most assiduously and carefully nursed, died on Thursday night. The others received every care and attention and are now doing well.
Mr. Ingham had arrived at the pit early in the afternoon and superintended the proceedings we have described.