BOX FLAT: Courageous miner grieves for a brother lost
HEART and soul.
Ray Verrenkamp bared both when he spoke of the day his brother Mervyn died in the Box Flat coal mine explosion at Swanbank on July 31, 1972.
This is the hardest story one could write, because Ray still feels responsible for his brother's death 45 years ago to the day.
In truth, Ray is not to blame. His wife Janette tells him that and so does his brother John.
But talk to Ray and you gain a fraction of an insight into the pain still felt by the families of the 18 men who died as a result of the explosion - 17 following the blast at 2.47am and another, Clarence Edwin Wolski, 14 months later as a result of the injuries he sustained.
The rescue crews had gone underground to try and put out a fire that had started the previous evening.
Ray had been down below himself, as he explained when talking about a day that shook Ipswich to the core - physically and emotionally.
"I was responsible for him being at the mine. I made them call him out,” Ray said as he remembered his brother at the 45th anniversary service at the Ipswich-Rosewood Coalminers Memorial..
"That night I had been down three times before and when the rake was going down the last time I said to the deputy on shift, 'ring Marburg and get Merv in'.
"He said 'I'm not ringing him' and then I said 'you'd better get him because this will do him good'.
"Merv arrived just as the rake was going down. They pulled up, he got into his suit and they took him down...and then he got killed.”
Ray's wife Janette is a rock by her husband's side. She heard Ray speaking about the explosion and his call out for Merv and made a few points of her own.
"He still blames himself but I always tell him it is not his fault,” she said.
"There were other things happening besides that.
"I keep telling him not to blame himself but I can't get through to him.
"We have been together for 55 years and I have always been there for him.”
Ray's brother John, also a life-long miner, said the family lost Mervyn to an unforeseen event as he also reflected.
"It is just a thing that has happened and we couldn't do anything about it. We lost a lot of good friends,” he said.
"I was there when the last lot went below, before the explosion. Then I travelled home to Marburg to where I lived, and I could hear the explosion out there.
"A little while later I got a phone call.
"Merv was on the rescue brigade with the last lot that went down...and they lost their lives.
"They were trying to put the fire out to make it safe for the men to go down there again.”
That bravery will never be forgotten.
Miners were, and still are, the heart and soul of Ipswich.
They made this city what it is. They toiled for their families in treacherous conditions day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
They didn't give up.
When you look for the best in Ipswich you find the qualities that epitomise coal miners; their devotion to hard work, unity for a cause, resilience and reliability.
Talk to Ray and he makes you want to be a better man; braver, more open, more honest...more understanding.
He wouldn't want to be painted as heroic, but isn't it heroic to face the future and the past with such veracity?
The mine where the disaster occurred was shut forever and the entrances bulldozed.
It was tough for Ray to work again at another Box Flat mine, but mining was in his blood and he had a living to make and a family to support, so he rolled his sleeves up and went back to his life-long profession at Swanbank.
"I started when I was 14 and retired when I was 58. I was in the mines for 44 years, and 42 years I worked underground,” he said.
"I do have fond memories of it. Miners are close knit and we always had good camaraderie.”
The 18 men who perished as a result of the explosion faced danger squarely between the eyes and did not flinch.
Forever in our memory, their heroics deeds live on.
Looking back, an emotional Ray said it was still difficult to accept what happened 45 years ago.
"You've got to accept it, but by God it's hard,” he said.