One hundred and eight years ago today, on March 10, 1906, an explosion and fire occurred deep underground in a coal mine owned by the Courrières mining company underneath the village of Billy-Montigny in northern France. A colossal fire swept through the many miles of coal tunnels, horribly incinerating miners who were trying to reach the elevator shafts to get to the surface. The fire sucked up what little air was in the mine, replacing it with toxic gases that suffocated more people than the fire burned. A total of 1,099 miners died, including many children.
When I first saw that number I thought it had to be a mistake. One thousand and ninety nine? Astonishingly, it’s true. The Courrières mine disaster killed almost as many people as died on the Titanic. Nearly every family in this economically depressed area of France was struck with tragedy. It was truly a national-scale disaster.
The disaster was probably caused by the ignition of coal dust somewhere deep in the mine, perhaps by a miner’s lamp–they used open flames rather than electric lights in 1906–or possibly just by the friction of the dust in the air, similar to what happens in grain elevators. The Courrières company’s response to the crisis was terrible and hard-hearted. They weren’t experienced at dealing with mining accidents in the first place, much less one on this scale–there were 1800 miners working down there that day, and over 60% of them were killed, with many of the rest unconscious or wounded. Although many miners were still alive somewhere in the tunnels, the company stopped their rescue efforts after only three days and walled off the section of the mine where they knew people were still alive. The reason? They were afraid the fire, still smoldering, would reach the coal faces beyond that point.
In the days after the disaster, freelance teams of mining rescue experts, including one from Germany, descended upon Billy-Montigny to search for survivors. Here is one team modeling state of the art (in 1906) breathing apparatus.
Some of the surviving miners simply refused to give up. Trapped in the darkness, they ate food from lunch pails that were left behind by dead or fled comrades, then slaughtered a horse that was down in the tunnels with them. Twenty days after the disaster, on March 30, a group of these miners finally managed to be heard by someone else and rescued. Thirteen emerged alive. Five days later one final survivor was found. By then hope had faded for anyone else.
The villages of northern France touched by the tragedy were outraged at the Courrières mining company. In the months and years after the explosion, it came out that dangerous gases were detected in various parts of the mine in the days prior to March 10, and smoke was also seen, suggesting a fire was already burning somewhere. A representative of the miners’ union told Courrières they should stop production until the mine was safe, but they refused. Due to the general absence of labor laws in France in the early 1900s, miners had little leverage against their employers, and children worked alongside adults in the black dusty tunnels. Miners all over France responded to the company’s intransigence by going on strike. Although a survivor’s fund was established by law shortly after the disaster, there was little other tangible benefit from the tragedy.
Like the Ermenonville air disaster I blogged about last week, the Courrières horror illustrates the terrible things that can happen when companies and industries value short-term profits over lives and safety. The tragedy that spread across northern France a century ago is a reminder that working people and their allies must remain forever vigilant to protect their lives and livelihoods. Little has changed today. Mining disasters still occur with regularity in many parts of the world, and they are almost invariably accompanied with accusations of negligence or corporate wrongdoing. The victims of the Courrières disaster are very numerous, but sadly not unique in history.