Inspired by the rescue of the schoolboy soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018, I decided to re-read The Entombed Miner by Tom Austin. This is one of the most famous true stories to come out of the WA Goldfields and a classic drama from Western Australian history.
At one time, there would hardly have been a person anywhere in Australia who did not know this story. I first encountered it in a School Reading book when I was at Primary School. The story made international news. But in asking around the other day, I was amazed that it is now almost forgotten, especially by the younger generation.
Yet it is a classic of endurance, courage, heroism and leadership. And like the best true stories, it begins with disaster and ends in triumph. I regard it as every bit inspiring as the Thailand rescue.
To summarise: an Italian tribute miner Modesto Varischetti was trapped by floodwaters in an air pocket at the tenth level down a gold mine, before eventually being discovered, and then rescued by divers who took him out to safety. Varischetti was entombed, alone and mostly in utter darkness, for nine days.
Taking place at the tiny mining centre of Bonnievale, eleven kilometres north of Coolgardie in the WA eastern goldfields, the disaster began on the 19th March, 1907, when a sudden thunderstorm completely flooded the Westralia Mine. There were 160 men at work in the mine at the time. All but one managed to scramble up the ladders, level by level, to safety, through the storm water pouring down on them. Varischetti, who had been working alone at a great depth, had not been warned, and knew only of the flood when it rushed in on him. Luckily, he was working on a slight rise, and was able to retreat into an air pocket.
His mates had given up all hope, before one of them, exploring above the flood levels, heard a hammer tapping below him. Taps were exchanged using a miner's code, and it was realised Varischetti was alive.
Then began the amazing rescue. A Rescue Special train was sent up from Fremantle with diving equipment (the account of "the special" is a story in itself; it was given an 'open road' and ran the 560 kms to Coolgardie in just over 11 hours and at an average speed of 68 km/hour, an astounding effort on the narrow-gauge railway, with steam locomotives).
One of the two rescue locomotives, now in the railway museum at Bassendean
Two miners from Kalgoorlie who had been professional divers and who had volunteered to go down the flooded mine, were waiting. They donned the gear and were lowered into the pitch-dark waters. Diver Frank Hughes led the way, assisted by diver Tom Hearn. Wearing the cumbersome brass helmets, heavy watertight canvas clothes and diver's boots, dragging their air hoses and signalling ropes, operating basically in the dark, the two men found their way down the flooded shaft and navigated their way down shafts and along twisting drives .... until, ultimately, diver Hughes rose out of the black water and shone a feeble torch on a terrified Varischetti (it was said later that he thought it was the devil coming to get him).
Hughes (assisted by Hearn) made a number of trips to Varishetti's tomb, taking food, candles and matches and returning with messages. Each trip was on the edge of disaster because of the risk of the air hoses and signal ropes becoming entangled or damaged as they were pulled around the rocky drives. All of this time a mammoth effort was being made to de-water the mine, with pumps operating ceaselessly. After nine days, Hughes thought he could get Varischetti out, as the water had dropped to the point where they could wade out with their heads just above water and then climb into one of the skips being used to bale water.
On the 29th March, Varischetti, flanked by Hughes and Hearn, emerged from the mine. An enormous cheer went up from the hundreds of people gathered at the pit head.
The Entombed Miner does justice to these events, being well-researched and well-written. Author Tom Austen captures the horror of Varischetti's situation, and pays tribute to the courage and endurance of the two miners. He also does not fail to extol the leadership of Mines Inspector Josiah Crabb, who coordinated and oversaw the entire rescue. The text is supported by photographs and diagrams of the flooded mine, and traces the background and subsequent history of the main players. Astonishingly, after he had recovered, Varischetti went back to being an underground miner.
The rescuers: Mines Inspector Crabb (centre) with Diver Hughes (on his left) and Diver Hearn
The book is hard to find. It was originally published in 1986, but is now out of print. Luckily, I was able to purchase a copy from the Coolgardie Visitor Centre for $25, the Coolgardie Shire having reprinted it in 2007 on the centenary of the rescue. It is a facsimile of the original book, but nicely presented (and mailed to me free of postage).
Despite knowing the outcome, I found the book un-put-downable. It is without doubt one of the greatest stories in Western Australian history.