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The Rescue Attempts

Thursday 5th March 3.20 p.m. - The first and second descents

The first descent was made at 3.20 by Whittingham, Hopwood, and Cranswick, using the Weg apparatus, the interval being spent in describing the position of matters underground to Mr. Garforth, explaining to the rescuers the main features of the mine plan, telling them what they were to do, and in getting the apparatus ready.

At 4.24 p.m. they returned to the surface. Whilst underground they got to all the separation doors, but when they came to the fourth one they could proceed no further on account of the falls of roof which were taking place, and although they could see no flame they could hear the "crackling" of the fire.

Whittingham thought that if they had a supply of water and hose pipe they might have been able to put out the fire, though there would have been two difficulties in the way of effecting this. The first was that the steam produced by this operation might have killed them, and secondly that the effect of squirting the water on the fire might would probably brought about a great fall of roof on top of them or in their near vicinity.

Corning back through the communication road they entered, the No. 2 east return air way, and proceeded along it as far as the rock stables without encountering anyone, though they found a cat alive in the return.

Rescued Cat
The Rescued Cat - From The Sketch 11th March 1908

They had been a short time out of the mine, and a second party had gone down the upcast shaft, when word was sent to the office that the signal bells were ringing at the downcast (No. 1) shaft, so Whittingham, Hopwood, and Welsby made a descent to see what the ringing meant, but on getting within 50 yards of the bottom they found a great deal of smoke "and the blaze was issuing up the shaft," so they deemed it unsafe to go any lower.

The second party to descend the upcast shaft comprised the Mr Waterhouse (Manager), Thorne and Clifford (the two latter being Tankersley men) wearing the Draeger apparatus.

Major Waterhouse with canary
Major Waterhouse with canary


Mr. Johnstone suggested to Mr. Garforth that the second party should make the steep bank in the return air course their objective. This being because the men entombed were practically all men experienced in dealing more or less with gob fires and at least some of them would be able to recognise the difference between the smell of the smoke and the smell of the atmosphere when it was an ordinary gob fire, as it was not an ordinary gob fire but smoke was coming from burning timber. The usual custom in South Staffordshire under these conditions was that they would make for the intake airway but in this case they would try to escape by the return airway. Mr, Grazebrook had estimated the velocity of the air and it was possible that if those men had made a run for it towards the return airway, and been overtaken by the smoke they might have been ' pulled down' when climbing up the steep bank. The exertion of climbing that bank would intensify the effects of the carbon- monoxide.

This party was down one hour and three quarters even though the time allowed to them was only one hour and twenty minutes. They had gone through the "bolt hole" near by, and into the Rock stables, where they found two of the horses alive. Mr Waterhouse was somewhat exhausted (he had been suffering recently from an influenza attack and had not had any training in the use of the Draeger or any other type of pneumatophor) so they did not proceed down the incline. They arrived back at the surface at nine minutes past six.

Thursday 5th March 7.30 p.m. The Third Descent

The third party to descend the upcast shaft of the mine at 7.30 p.m., consisted of Welsby and Whittingham wearing the Weg apparatus and Thorne and Outram with the Draeger outfit.

When about twenty yards from the pit bottom Outram complained that something was wrong with his apparatus, and on going ten yards further he stopped again, so Thorne took him up to the surface,

Whittingham and Welsby agreed to go steadily along and expect Thorne to return and catch them up. Welsby and Whittingham proceeded along the return passage, resting every now and again and watching to catch sight of Thorne returning to them. They had a plan with them, and a bag holding brandy, milk, and chocolate in case they found any one. They came to the hill (about 600 yards along the return) and it was very hot and very thick with smoke; the further they went the thicker was the smoke - much hotter and thicker than in the early stages of the journey. The perspiration was streaming off them.

Whittingham hammered on the water pipes which were there but got no response. They would then be about 800 yards from the shaft.

Up to this Welsby was quite well and wanted to go further but Whittingham would not consent. Welsby's gauge showed now a pressure of 35 atmospheres in each of his oxygen cylinders, whilst Whittingham showed 60 in his. Welsby had had a cold for a week which would account perhaps in some degree for his greater consumption of oxygen. They started to return and about 40 or 50 yards back they had to stop as Welsby was tired and using his bye- pass to get more oxygen. There was limited oxygen left and they were now relying on going straight back.

After proceeding only a little distance Welsby wanted to sit down again, remarking that he had no use in his legs. Whittingham took hold of his left hand and helped him along whilst he used his right hand pulling along the floor. They were creeping, there not being sufficient height to walk: the height varied, in some places it was a yard, in others four feet, and one place for about 60 yards it was very high. In addition to the lowness it must be borne in mind that they were encumbered with a breathing apparatus weighing about 35 lbs. and the heat was great. They struggled up the hill together, and Welsby kept wanting to use his bye-pass to gain more Oxygen reviving him a bit. Welsby by now was very much exhausted, and Whittingham pulled him for about 50 yards. In all he had helped him along one way or another for about 100 yards. Welsby kept using his bye-pass until he had exhausted all his oxygen.

Whittingham was left with no option but to go on for help. He loosened Weslbys mouthpiece and left him in a kneeling position, putting on his electric light so that his position could be determined by anyone coming in. On his going out-bye Whittingham himself began to feel ill, even though he had plenty of oxygen. He thought he was about 20 yards from the pit bottom, but in was in all probability nearer 80 yards, when he was met by Thorne in an utterly exhausted condition, who guided and helped by him into the cage, arriving at the surface (with Thorne) in a semi-conscious state.

It appears that something had gone wrong with the purifying part of Outram's apparatus, and Thorne had a fresh flask of oxygen fitted to his apparatus. Arrangements were then made for two of the Weg men, who had already been partially prepared as forming part of the next rescue party, to go down and try and reach Welsby. They descended at 9.40 p.m., and returned at 10.50 p.m. They only got in some four or five hundred yards when they were compelled to return, they found the atmosphere so much worse than on the previous descent, one man informing Mr. Johnstone that the smoke was so dense that they could not move more than a yard in advance even with the electric light; their progress was much slower than on the previous occasions, and finding that the supply of oxygen had run down to a dangerous point, if they had not returned they themselves would have lost their lives.

There seems little doubt that Welsby was overcome by heat stroke and that his death was in no way due to any failure of the apparatus he was wearing.

Next - Reversing the Air Flow


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