Geologic Column

The Springhill Mine Disaster
Lisa A. Rossbacher

Remember your first time in a cave or an underground mine? Now, think back to the moment when all the lights were turned off.

Probably your first response was to strain to see in the total darkness, looking for shapes and shadows, anything to reassure yourself that that you could see something. We humans take in 80 percent of our sensory information visually. Seeing is important.

Probably your immediate second response was the realization of the volume of rock and soil over your head. You were reminded, in the darkness, that you were beneath the surface of Earth.

Then your rational side kicked in, and you asked yourself: This cave has been here for thousands of years, right? Surely it is stable, you thought. Mines are all carefully monitored by federal agencies, with high safety standards, aren't they? This is safe, isn't it? After all, when was the last time that a cave-in or collapse was reported on the evening news?

Probably, this internal argument between reason and fear, light and dark, air and dirt, freedom and burial didn't last long. You turned on your headlamp or struck a match, and continued exploring. But what if the lights didn't come back on? What if the exit route was blocked? What if the unthinkable happened?

Springhill 1958

The unthinkable did happen when the Springhill Mine in Nova Scotia, Canada, collapsed in 1958. The collapse and the individual and collective fates of the miners is the topic of a remarkable new book, Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster, written by Melissa Fay Greene and released in April by Harcourt. The story is a strong reminder of the implications of "what if…?"

The "bump" happened on Oct. 23, 1958, in Springhill, Nova Scotia, Canada. As Greene writes, "At 8:06 P.M., the mine seized up, and coal came crashing up through nearly all the open spaces in the underground maze. The disaster of [Mine] No. 2 came not as a cave-in. Instead, the rock floor heaved upwards. From an oceanic depth, a ball of fiery gas threw off its stone layers … The deepest stone floor rose faster than an elevator. It smashed into the floor above it, and the two stacked together, hurtled up into the third, like granite dominoes falling upward."

A few miners staggered out of the tunnel. A total of 75 perished. But 19 men survived in the total darkness for nearly nine days until they were rescued. They survived through the failing lamps and then the darkness, the smells of gas, decomposition and human waste, the lack of food and water, the confined space, the fear and uncertainty about any hope of rescue, and, in several cases, serious injuries. All of the miners were changed forever. But they lived. They survived.

As families waited for news in the days after the "bump," they hoped — and feared — to hear the words that marked the end of the rescue effort. A miner's son remembered waiting for news of his father after a 1956 explosion at the Springhill mine: "So that's how folks were told their loved ones are dead …. They didn't come out and that's it. If he's not out by the time they call 'Last man out,' he's not coming. That's how you find out."

Last man out

Greene includes some of the stories of the aftermath of survival. Even before the rescue process was complete, an opportunistic political aide in Georgia invited the rescued men and their families for a vacation in the new beach resort of Jekyll Island. This publicity stunt, intended to get some international press for Georgia tourism, seriously backfired. The last trapped miner to exit the cave-in site — the "last man out" — was black. The state of Georgia was led by segregationist governor Marvin Griffin. Instead of advertising the balmy breezes and sparkling sand on Jekyll's barrier island, the media coverage of the survivors' visit focused on the distinctly different treatment of the white survivors (at the resort) and the black one (in a trailer, at the southern tip of the island).

Another major source of information about the Springhill disaster is a publication of the National Academy of Sciences (Disaster Study No. 13, 1960), Individual and Group Behavior in a Coal Mine Disaster. A psychologist and a sociologist interviewed the survivors and tried to understand the impact of isolation and stress in confined spaces. The research was expected to be relevant to human interactions in trying situations: in underground shelters (remember, the Cold War was very real in 1958), in submarines and perhaps, one day, in spacecraft. What the research found, though, was that the behaviors seem to be unique to the individuals who were involved in this disaster, and the generalities are less clear. As with most situations, crises bring out true character. As the saying goes, "under pressure, we become more like ourselves." This was true of the miners, and it's a simple but important lesson.

Each of the 19 men who survived the mine collapse was changed in profound ways by the experience. Some felt survivors' guilt. Some fell into deep depression. A few tried to change the courses of their lives. All suffered from the devastating economic impact of the subsequent mine closure. And they all had a renewed appreciation for some of the elements of life that might otherwise be taken for granted: family, fresh air, sunlight, music and "a simple glass of tap water."

After time below ground in a cave or a mine — whether for 20 minutes or nine days — fresh air and light are particularly sweet. "What's important" can be remarkably clarified. It's a useful reminder, and our perspective can be changed by events far less catastrophic than the ones that affected the men of Springhill in 1958.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

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