Seventeen doomed miners were trapped underground in the 1972 Box Flat Mine disaster.
Seventeen doomed miners were trapped underground in the 1972 Box Flat Mine disaster.

Box Flat survivors recall memories

NEWS of the Pike River mine blast on New Zealand’s South Island has brought painful flashbacks for survivors of Ipswich’s Box Flat disaster.

The coal mine, about 50km north-east of Greymouth, exploded about 4.30pm local time on November 19.

There were 35 people on duty at the time, of whom 29 remain unaccounted for.

But rescuers have been unable to enter the mine due to dangerously high gas levels.

Allan Berlin, 76, who was part of the mines rescue team when Box Flat exploded in 1972, was never allowed to retrieve his mates from the ill-fated mine.

More than 38 years have passed since that awful last day of July, but it’s all still fresh in Mr Berlin’s mind.

“I certainly have been following the news from New Zealand,” he said.

“It’s disturbing. It’s a tragedy and it certainly has brought back a lot of memories for me.”

Mr Berlin was on the surface when the mine exploded, but that didn’t put him out of danger, as some of his mates who were also on the surface sustained shocking injuries.

But it was the 17 men underground who were left with absolutely no chance.

To put it in Mr Berlin’s terms: “being in the tunnel was like being in the barrel of a gun.”

“I have come to accept over the years that they would have been killed instantly,” he said.

“But not being able to go there and try to retrieve them – that has played on my mind a lot.”

Two Queensland men – Willy Joynson, 48, and Josh Ufer, 25 – are among the 29 miners stuck underground at the Pike River mine since Friday..

The latest reports suggest there is still a chance for the trapped men, with Prime Minister John Key telling media there was oxygen in the mine and that the men could have access to a pocket of oxygen flow.

Tests have shown a fire burning underground was generating toxic gases, and grave fears are held for all 29 men.

Mr Berlin said that if the miners were still alive, it was only natural that their chances of survival would drop as the hours dragged on.

“It has been more than 72 hours now,” he said.

“In this situation there are a lot of unknowns.

“It would be a miracle if any of these guys got out.”



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