At about 6.25 a.m. on Friday, 18th September, 1959 after most of the night shift had gone up and before the day shift came down, A. Paton, the night shift engineman in charge of the man-riding haulage, was waiting to be relieved by T. Campbell in his engine house near the upcast pit bottom, when he noticed a slight haze and a very slight smell of something burning. He was not worried by this and he went to meet the first cage of the day at the pit bottom containing the day shift men at just after 6.30 a.m. One of these men was J.H. Dickson, the day shift assistant overman. Paton drew his attention to the haze and smell. Dickson was suffering from a cold and could not smell anything but he sensed what he called 'a kind of heat' in the air. He decided to investigate inbye and told an oncost (day-wage) worker to inform R. Boyd, the day shift overman, when he came down the pit. Paton then went back to the engine house and ran the first train down the man-riding haulage road. Many of the men on that train gave evidence about the haze in the pit bottom and some sensed that all was not well inbye but none of the men seemed to have been alarmed. The train left at 6.40 a.m. with Dickson and about seven others. The normal journey time was about eight minutes so they must have arrived at two or three minutes after 6.45 a.m. There was no appointed guard on the train but it was signalled back to the pit bottom. Some of the men on the train said that the haze was slightly thicker at the inbye terminus than at the pit bottom but they were still not alarmed. It was the usual practice for them to travel along the return airway to their working places but on this occasion Dickson decided that all the men should accompany him through Johnstone's Crosscut into the intake air way. The men followed him and arrived at the fan about 7 a.m.
- The Disaster -
Dickson went alone through the doors at the back of the No.5 haulage engine house into the fan house and found flames rising from the fan belt which was burned through and lying on the floor. He saw that the belt was around the fan pulley and that the flames were being drawn into the fan casing. Others followed Dickson into the fan house and saw flames coming from the fan outlet and into the return airway at about 7.05 a.m.
Meanwhile, Boyd, the day shift overman who was down the pit about 6.50 a.m., had received Dickson's message and had gone down to the main switches near the downcast shaft with the intention of switching off all the electric current inbye. He was uncertain about the switching arrangements so he told D. Kirkpatrick, a pump maintenance man, who was conversant with the switchgear to cut off the current. To make sure that this would not affect the No.1 Pit workings, Boyd decided to telephone an electrician on the surface. While he was trying to do this, he heard Dickson on the telephone saying that the fan was on fire.
J. Thornton, an electrician, had reached the pit bottom and Boyd sent him to the main switches to check that the current to the fan was off. Thornton went to the switches and telephoned Dickson asking him to cut the supply to the fan motor. Boyd had told an oncost worker to give a message to Campbell in the engine house and this message was heard by the conveyor beltman. The message was that no one was to be let down the man-riding haulage until further notice. In evidence, Boyd said that he intended that any of the men in the haulage should be withdrawn but the message was misunderstood. He walked inbye to the intake airway and on the way met a brusher who had been sent by Dickson to Johnstone's Crosscut to stop any men going into the return airway. Boyd felt he had stopped all the men going in, so he took the brusher with him to the fan which he reached shortly after 7.30 a.m.
Paton, on receiving the signal, started to haul the empty train outbye but was then relieved by Campbell at about 6.50 a.m. Paton walked to the cage and out of the pit.
On the surface he told D. McKinnon, the chief engineer and A. Pettigrew, the undermanager that there was a haze in the return airway. Pettigrew suspected that the haze was being caused by the fan belt which, as he knew, had been giving trouble during the night. He went to the lamp room and telephoned a warning to the overman of the No.1 Pit workings that the booster fan might not be working. He had just finished the call when Dickson called the lamp room. Dickson told Pettigrew that there was fire in the fan house and that hoses and extinguishers were urgently needed. McKinnon and Pettigrew informed the manager and went down the upcast shaft about 7.10 a.m. taking with them a new fan belt which McKinnon had earlier sent for. It did not occur to them that the men in the No.2 Pit return airway were in immanent danger. They were anxious about the ventilation and their sole purpose was to put out the fire and restart the fan. At the bottom of the shaft they encountered dense smoke and Pettigrew saw a number of the day shift men waiting to go up and he assumed that all the men from the return airway were there. He went down the intake airway with McKinnon and D. McAuley, a mechanic.
The first train returned to the terminus about 6.55 a.m. Forty eight men then boarded the train to go inbye. According to the engineman the train left at 7 a.m. Thomas (Big Tam) Green, the sole survivor of the men on the train, said the haze thickened very slightly during the journey to the terminus. When the train arrived none of the men left the terminus since, just as they arrived, a thick blanket of smoke came along the return airway towards them and the men, by common consent decided to get on board the train again.
Campbell received the signal to haul outbye and started to do so but then he had signals to stop and start the train three times in quick succession, the train eventually got under way and did not stop until it was near the outbye terminus.
Thomas Green remembered the train stopping once only. This was at the top of the 1 in 5 gradient when it stopped so that one of the men who had slumped off the bogie could be pulled back into his seat. Green said the smoke was very thick indeed and he covered his nose and mouth with his jacket as best he could. He was sitting at the outbye end of the train and when it stopped before reaching the terminus, he got off and stumbled along until he was overcome after passing the gate at the outbye end of the man-riding haulage road where he was rescued. None of the other forty seven men on the bogies escaped. As they were found, it was evident that forty three of them had been overcome as they sat on the bogie; one appeared to have fallen from the train about 300 yards inbye and only three seemed able to have made an attempt to escape but they had died quite close to the train.