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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The entombed miner

Well, it's been a month, and I have been frantically busy, collecting an award for the book that came out in May, a Whitley from the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales for Australian Backyard Naturalist, which they apparently liked, and then doing the publicity for the book that came out on October 1, Curious Minds, and then working on the next book which is straightforward Australian history for ages 7 to 14, a broad view of a few billion years.

So as a sop to my conscience, here is a story that I referred to earlier this year, the tale of a man who nearly drowned in a desert. For Australian readers who recall Stuart Diver at Thredbo, there are some parallels here, and that's not a weak pun on "diver", either.  The story kept a nation enthralled.  I won't have room for this in the current work, but I will get it into print some time.  You get to read it first.

* * * * *

A section showing the whole mine, to give a
 sense of perspective, and a portrait of
"the entombed miner".
For journalists, the story of Modesto Varischetti had everything. For starters, the man they called "the entombed miner" risked being drowned in a desert. He was a widower with children in Italy who had come to Australia to earn enough to keep them.

Best of all: the plan to rescue him with divers in special suits, rushed by train from the coast, 600 km away. They had drama, a risk of slow drowning, a man buried alive, children who would be orphans, and the hope technology would save him.

Varischetti's position
Dry places can be dangerous when it rains, because the rain runs across the dry ground in a muddy, rocky torrent. Around 4 pm on Tuesday March 19, 1907, heavy rain fell for two hours near the Westralia and East Extension mine, north of Coolgardie.

The run-off flowed towards the pit head, and plunged down the shaft. Other mines in the area also took in water, but this mine was hit hardest.

The first the miners knew of the problem was when a torrent of mud and debris hit them, but twenty of them were rescued, hauled up the shaft in skips, metal bins on cables. Only one miner was left, and the missing man was soon identified as Varischetti.

Zeroing in on levels 9 and 10, this is the position Varischetti was in when the water stopped pouring in, and before baling started.
The mine was divided into levels, each 100 feet, some 30 metres, deep. Level 9 was 270 metres down, level 10 was 300 metres below ground. The water filled the mine almost to level 9, and Varischetti had been on a drive, a horizontal tunnel, on level 10.

There seemed no hope for him, but he was in an air pocket in a blind vertical shaft, above the level 10 drive. When water filled the shaft, the air was compressed, but it held the water back so the trapped man did not drown. He sat back, and waited to be rescued.

People cheered when they heard that Varischetti was alive and tapping the rock in the shaft. At least he now had some hope, because the men above him had signalled their level with nine knocks and he had replied with ten. They knew where he was, but they had to get the water out of the way.

Pumping water from 270 metres down is difficult. The only way was to lower skips from the surface, haul them up, and tip the water somewhere away from the shaft. After some repairs, seven hours after the flood, water was being dragged out.

It was going to take at least ten days, and a different rescue method was needed. The young son of the local mining inspector, Josiah Crabb, came up with the answer. "Why don't you use a diver?" he asked. Enter Diver Hughes, as he was called. Frank Hughes was a former professional diver who had gone mining, so he knew mines and diving, but he had no diving suit or other equipment.

This was the age of the telegraph and the express train. Telegrams to Perth had a train rushing to the goldfields, with diving equipment and extra divers. It was a special train, with one coach, a brake van and an extra truck of coal as ballast to stop the train swaying, and it made the trip in record time.

Hughes planned to take in a second diving suit, put Varischetti in it, and bring him out. First he had to take in food, water, writing materials and an electric torch while baling continued. When the water dropped enough, Hughes walked through the drive, keeping his mouth close to the roof, without a diving suit. He made several trips as the water fell slowly, before Varischetti agreed to walk along the drive with him—though Hughes had to carry the exhausted man part of the way.

Late in the afternoon of March 28, the entombed miner left the shaft, 9 days and 2 hours after his ordeal had started. The excited crowd had been warned to stay quiet so as not to upset him, but spontaneous cheers broke out for all of those concerned. Worked up to a fever by the press, they cheered a great victory.

Frank Hughes and Thomas Hearne, another diver who helped, both received awards, medals and commendations, as well as the cheers of the mob. Even the Minister of Mines, who had done no more than have his staff meet the demands telegraphed from the goldfields, was decorated by the King of Italy. Nobody minded, because the humans had beaten nature.

Varischetti went back mining, and died at Kalgoorlie Government Hospital in 1920 of 'miner's phthisis', a dust disease of the lungs. He was just 46, and we soon forgot him.  Nobody commented on the irony of the man who nearly drowned dying of dust on the lungs.

Without telegraphs and express trains, the rescuers would have been too late. Without the telegraph lines that spanned Australia and the world and the steam presses and steam trains that delivered the news to a fascinated public in Australia and Italy, there would have been no wonder and nowhere near the level of celebration.

Modesto Varischetti would have just been another anonymous casualty of human greed.

If you want to know more about the history of gold in Australia, you could do worse than use this link which takes you to most of my research sources.