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Underground hell

Tuesday, 28th January, 2020

Liam Supple, who lives in Adelaide with his father Andrew, at the Miners’ Memorial in Broken Hill. PICTURE: Supplied Liam Supple, who lives in Adelaide with his father Andrew, at the Miners’ Memorial in Broken Hill. PICTURE: Supplied

By Michael Murphy

A former Broken Hill mineworker trapped underground during a terrifying fire has shared his experience on the 30th anniversary of that fateful day.

Andrew Supple, a former fitter and machinist for Pasminco, pauses and reflects each year on January 18, and remembers the hundreds of men who lost their lives working along the Line of Lode.

He knew well two of the men whose names appear on the Miners’ Memorial in Broken Hill, and he is thankful his name is not among them. 

Andrew was one of four men trapped underground for almost three hours when fire engulfed a refuelling loader deep into the North Mine.

On that day 30 years ago, Andrew was on the 36 level about to repair the brake system on a mobile drilling rig, a Tamrock.

He decided to move it, because it was surrounded by water, when another worker flashed his lights. He thought the worker’s machine had broken down, so decided to investigate.

“I got off the Tamrock, and took one or two steps, and I suddenly could not see a thing,” he said.

“My tools and self-rescuer were on the other side of the Tamrock, and because of the thick smoke, I realised I had little chance of finding anything.”

He decided to try to walk out of there, and followed a wall by hand, but unsure of his bearings, and battling the acid-tasting smoke, he lay down and began to breathe through a rag.

He cried for help a few times, and then eventually heard another man call out for help. That man, Greg Arnold, found Andrew and lay down beside him.

After a while, the pair decided they had to move to have a chance of surviving.

“We started to move, we changed walls and then came back because we weren’t getting anywhere ... the heat and fumes were so strong we had to lay down again.”

They tried to stand up again when they heard someone coming, but were overcome by the heat and fumes and sat back down again.

As the ground and air continued to heat up, Greg made a break for it. Andrew couldn’t move. He began vomiting, and took off his hard hat and boots because they were too hot to touch.

“Next I can remember is hearing two explosions, then I heard rocks falling,” he said.

“I was still throwing up, and I think I had a blood nose because it was running so fast.”

He heard a noise, which sounded like water, and he thought it might have been someone trying to put out the fire.

He decided to move towards it as best he could. He grabbed the light off his hard hat and crawled backwards on his hands and knees towards the noise.

“I’d shuffle back a bit and stop to get some energy.

“I was starting to dry-retch.”

Andrew called out and Greg found him again, and dragged him over to an air hose. Greg cut the hose and they started breathing out of it.

Greg then went to find help.

Andrew then saw two lights coming toward him.

“I must have passed out because the next thing I remember was walking up the incline. I had a self-rescuer on and two people assisting me.”

Andrew was thrown on the back seat of a jeep and driven up to the 32 level, returned to the surface and taken to hospital by ambulance.

He suffered lung damage, cuts and bruises to his arms, knees and buttocks, sore eyes, running nose “and his nerves were shot”.

A report compiled after the fire said three workers, including Andrew, breathed in the toxic fumes for up to two-and-a-half hours. A fourth man was trapped near an air intake, and his exposure was significantly less.

“Of the four men trapped, none will be returning to the underground environment,” the report said.

“Three have already left the industry and the fourth expects to do likewise.

“Each of the four trapped men suffer from what could be described as a severe psychological allergic reaction to the mine.”

The men even found it difficult to approach the mine site, the report said.

“Even going to the mine to pick up documents has resulted in the men getting no further than the gate.”

Andrew now lives in Adelaide and has worked for Australia Post for 27 years. He is currently the National Equipment Coordinator for posties.

He is married with two boys, 17 and 13. He has taken his family to the Miners’ Memorial on the line of lode and explained its significance to the people of Broken Hill. 

“Even after 30 years, the memories of that day are still vivid ... it is a day I will never forget,” Andrew said.

“I am thankful to the people who were in the fire, who assisted me, and those who came and took me out of it back to the surface.

“I am thankful my name is not on the memorial, and it does not appear just below two people I knew quite well - John Collison, who was also a tradesman on the North Mine, and Kevin Gray, who was my under 15 football coach.

“Please make the effort and go up and have a look at the memorial, read the names and how they died, and pay tribute to them.”

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