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Mines rescue gear and Howe Bridge certificate
Wikimedia Commons

Mines rescue is the specialised job of rescuing miners and others who have become trapped or injured in underground mines because of accidents, roof falls or floods and disasters such as explosions caused by firedampDamps is a collective name given to all gases other than air found in coal mines in Great Britain. The chief pollutants are carbon dioxide and methane, known as blackdamp and firedamp respectively. .


Mining laws require trained, equipped mines rescue personnel to be available at all surface and underground mining operations. Mines rescue teams are trained in the procedures used to rescue miners trapped by hazards, including fire, explosions, roof falls, toxic gas, smoke inhalation, and water. Most mines rescue teams are composed of miners who know the mine and are familiar with the machinery they may encounter, the layout of workings and geological conditions and working practices.

Rescuers and equipment

The first mines rescuers were colliery managers and volunteer colleagues of victims of explosions, roof falls and other accidents underground. They looked for signs of life, rescued the injured, sealed off underground fires so it would be possible to reopen the pit, and recovered bodies while working in dangerous conditions sometimes at great cost to themselves. Apart from safety lamps to detect gases, they had no special equipment[1] Most deaths in coal mines were caused by the poisonous gases caused by explosions, particularly afterdamp or carbon monoxide. Survivors of explosions were rare and most apparatus taken underground was used to fight fires or recover bodies.

Early breathing apparatus derived from under-sea diving equipment was developed and a crude nose and mouthpiece and breathing tubes was tried in France before 1800. Gas masks of various types were tried in the early-19th century: some had chemical filters, others goat skin reservoirs or metal canisters, but none eliminated carbon dioxide rendering them of limited use.[2] Theodore Schwann, a German professor working in Belgium, designed breathing apparatus based on the regenerative process in 1854 and it was exhibited in Paris in the 1870s but may never have been used.[3][4]

Henry Fleuss developed Schwann’s apparatus into a form of self-contained breathing apparatus in the 1880s and it was used after an explosion at Seaham Colliery in 1881.[3] The apparatus was further developed by Siebe Gorman into the Proto rebreather. The Proto apparatus was chosen in a trial of equipment from several manufacturers to select the most efficient apparatus for use underground when Howe Bridge Mines Rescue StationFirst mines rescue station on the Lancashire Coalfield, opened in 1908 in Lovers Lane Howe Bridge, Atherton, Lancashire, England. opened in 1908 and became the standard in rescue stations set up after the Coal Mines Act of 1911.[5] An early use of the breathing apparatus was in the aftermath of an explosion at the Maypole Colliery in Abram in August 1908. Six trained rescuers from Howe Bridge trained men at individual collieries in the use of the equipment, and at the time of the Pretoria Pit Disaster in 1910, several hundred trained men participated in the operation.[1]

British mines rescue stations

Altofts Colliery manager, W.E. Garforth suggested using a “gallery” to train rescuers and test rescue apparatus in 1899. One was built at his pit in Altofts, West Yorkshire at a cost of £13,000.[3] Garforth also suggested the idea of a network of rescue stations.[6] The first British mines rescue station opened at Tankersley in 1902. It was commissioned by the West Yorkshire Coal Mine Owners Association.[7] Its building survives and is grade II listed.[8] The Lancashire coal owners built Howe Bridge Mines Rescue Station in 1908.

A series of disasters in 19th century Britain brought about Royal Commissions which developed the idea of improving mine safety. The Coal Mines Act of 1911 made the provision of rescue stations compulsory. By 1919 there were 43 stations in the UK but as the coal industry declined from the last quarter of the 20th century many were closed, leaving six as of 2013, at Crossgates in Fife, Houghton-le-Spring in Tyne and Wear, Kellingley at Beal in North Yorkshire, Rawdon in Derbyshire, Dinas at Tonypandy in Glamorgan and at Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire.[9][10] The MRS Training centre at Houghton-le-Spring opened in 1913 is one of the six surviving British rescue stations which are operated by MRS Training and Rescue.[11] It is a Grade II listed building.[12]

In Britain, mines rescue teams may be called to investigate holes in the ground that have appeared because of land surface subsidence into old mineshafts and mine workings.

Mines rescue featured in the 1952 film The Brave Don’t Cry, which was a testimony to the Knockshinnoch disaster. Mine rescuers have often been recognised in Britain by the award of gallantry medals.[13]