The Wankie Coal Mine Disaster (ca. 1972)

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At approximately 10:27 am on Monday, June 6, 1972, an explosion ripped through the entire extent of the underground workings of Wankie No. 2 Colliery. A cable car was hurled like a giant cannonball from the No. 2 mine shaft of the Wankie Colliery in north-western Rhodesia, burning a row of papaya trees before it came to rest 50 yards away. That was the first sign of the disaster.

The initial explosion was caused by a methane explosion that was followed by a cold-dust explosion, devastating the major shaft of the mine responsible for all of Rhodesia’s coal production. On or near the surface, four men were killed instantly. Hundreds of metres below ground, 426 miners – 390 of them black, 36 white – were trapped amid rock and deadly methane and carbon monoxide fumes.

For 15 hours, rescue operations were hampered by gases seeping from the minehead. Eventually, the officers of the colliery, which is owned by the AngloAmerican Corp. of South Africa, decided to clear the shaft by pumping air in to push the fumes deeper into the mine; the decision permitted the rescue effort to begin but inevitably reduced the chance of finding anyone alive. Rescue teams listened in vain for “pipe talk,” the tapping of men who have somehow found sanctuary in pockets of fresh air. There was never any sign of life in the three-mile tunnel.

On 9 June, the mine’s officers made a heart-stopping decision. The mine’s manager, Sir Keith Acutt, announced that all hope was lost, adding that indications were that the missing men had “died instantaneously and were not aware of what had happened.”

The accident cost 427 lives, making Wankie the fifth worst coal mining disaster in history. A mass memorial service took place on 11 June at a nearby football stadium, where a crowd of about 5,000 people paid tribute. “This has cast a gloom over the whole country,” Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith said during the service.

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