Hwange mine tragedy revisited

Forty years ago today, on Tuesday June 6 1972 at around 10:15am, the morning shift down Wankie coal mine No Two Colliery was half way through.

Surface staff in workshops, transport areas and offices were having tea and discussing their work.

Suddenly there was a shuddering underfoot. “Reckon that could be a minor earth tremour,” somebody remarked.

And then they all saw it. Thick brown smoke was pouring out of the concrete slope that led down into the dark depths and which was soon to become an ugly symbol of the awful magnitude of what had happened.

It took a while for everybody to realise and understand the enormity of what had happened.

They weren’t to know it then, but hundreds of miners had died in an instant. And there would soon be thousands of confused and horrified mourners at the scene.

The aftermath would last a lifetime for all those who were to become traumatised by the experience.

A massive methane gas explosion had occurred with a power that ripped through the workings with unimaginable destruction, carrying everything and everybody before it.

And with the horror of discovery later, people of Wankie, of then Rhodesia, the region and soon enough the entire world, recoiled in the knowledge that 427 men and all their machinery had received the full force.

It was one of the worst mining disasters in the long history of mining. And so horribly sudden.

Hundreds of working comrades, fathers and brothers were catapulted into oblivion in a second. Families were devastated. Soon there would be mourning of intolerable intensity.


There were 391 Africans killed and 36 Europeans. Their nationalities were: 176 Zimbabweans, 91 Zambians, 52 Mozambicans, 37 Malawians, 30 Tanzanians, nine Namibians, four from Caprivi Strip and one from Botswana.

Within hours of the news spreading, many proto (rescue) teams arrived from all over Africa and Europe. It was a mining fraternity response at its finest. United Nations approved sanctions against the then Rhodesia were brusquely ignored and swept aside.

The rescue teams went down No Two Colliery, one after the other; in desperate bids to save lives if possible or at worst bring up bodies.

But such was the devastation and the possibility of further explosions they could not get further than about 200 metres down.

For hour after hour and with team after team they made their attempts despite the danger, but refused to give up.

Together with Chris Reynolds I was covering the disaster for the Argus Newspaper group, working our own shifts around the clock.

After four days of hopeless endeavour following the tragedy, we noted that several senior personnel were missing from the Baobab Hotel.

We dashed down to the mine headquarters to find a meeting taking place and signalled Howard Vaughan, public relations manager for the owners Anglo American, to come out and brief us.

He described how a dreadful but inevitable decision had been taken to seal off the Colliery, thus entombing forever the bodies of all those men. Rescue was clearly impossible, he said.
We had a world exclusive story to tell, but it meant nothing.

The next day workers set metal bars across the entrance and bound them with chicken wire, making it even uglier as a symbol of cruel death.

The proto teams gathered up their equipment and left with heads down and faces grim.

They had done a fantastic but fruitless job. Very soon the bad and good luck stories began to emerge.

One youngster, six years on the surface, had at last persuaded his manager to let him go down for experience. The appointed date was June 6.

A man who had been visiting family in Johannesburg was due back to join the morning shift of June 6. But he missed the plane.

There were changes of shift duties or switches in holiday dates that meant life or death.

On the Sunday a hastily arranged and highly charged memorial service of many hundreds of mourners and sympathisers, including heads of governments, was conducted by the Rev Bill Blakeway.

It had been planned to hold it at the pit-head. But at the last moment it was decided to change location because of the potential for danger.

People came great distances, by bus, truck, bicycle and on foot, brushing past the thorn trees along the narrow footpaths.

Women gathered together in a large group at the small town and mine cemetery. The men stood in a great semi-circle. The children tried to understand what it all meant.

Suddenly, in a moment of silence, one of the women sank to her knees and her voice rang out: “You must try again!”

It had all crystallised into a story of despair endured and courage shown by people who had led routine lives, but who had been catapulted into something beyond comprehension in one horrific moment.

They were to be overwhelmed by it all, but then stood firm by following shock with resolution. They put on smiles in the end, because that was what they had to do. We saw plenty of that and tried, as reporters, to do justice to it all.

The following day, some three kilometres away at No Three Colliery, 85% of the workforce, an average for a Monday, gathered at dawn to go down — an impressive bravery in tribute to colleagues who had been killed.

Especially because they assumed they would spend the rest of their working lives down there, thinking that every day might, could be their last.

As it happened they didn’t need to. All three collieries were later closed down and operations began exclusively on large scale surface mining.

When coal was discovered at Wankie in 1911, it was estimated there were reserves down below for more than a thousand years. But now it all lies untouched.

Together with the miners, Reynolds and I also went down with colliery manager GJ Livingstone-Blevins, other executives and the mine captain.

Upon reaching a low level, the captain handed me a detonator to set off the first controlled explosion. After a moment of pointless hesitancy I turned the key.

There was a “thump” further along and we heard singing noises among the telephone wires up and down the black corridors of coal. Wankie went back to work.

The following week, an inspector from the British Coal Board arrived to carry out a brief investigation. He told me afterwards that there was no “stone dusting within the mine” — granite dust placed in heaps on overhead shelves along each working area at short intervals. The dust, when struck by an explosion is designed to slow the effects. “If I had known about this omission at No Two Colliery beforehand,” he said in an interview “I would have shut it down.”

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