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37 - My Most Thrilling Experience



from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

Alone without illumination of any kind in a mine ventilation shaft 230 feet down in the earth, -- that was my most memorable experience in 16 years as surveyor in the iron ore mines at Bell Island, Newfoundland.

With my carbide lamp useless and without any means of securing light, I groped my way down the vertical shaft from one ladder to another across narrow intervening platforms, avoiding the pitfalls of broken rungs where a single mis-step meant a headlong fall to death. Even now, the details of that desperate descent and the ensuing struggle to reach safety, remain vividly clear in my memory.

It's true that only 10 feet separated me from the surface when darkness threw its impenetrable veil around me. But for purposes of escape I was fully a mile away, and that mile of circuitous travel had to be covered alone!

I was only 17 years of age at that time, with about 3 months' experience as a chain-man on the mine survey party, part of whose duty was to measure the height of the shaft regularly to determine its progress. On the day this experience happened (it was Monday, I remember), we had just returned to our office on surface, after spending the day at other duties in the mine, when the foreman of our party, Thomas Neary, came out from the office of the engineer (J.H. Morley) with a telegram in his hand.

"Get your pit clothes, Paddy," he said to me. "A message has come from Sydney asking for the measurement of the shaft."

It was nearly closing time, but the work had to be done, no matter how intensely one might dislike re-entering the mine after along day's grind. That message had come from our head office and contained instructions that permitted no delay. Accordingly, I took my "pit clothes" and two suits of oil-clothes for protection in that water-dripping shaft, and started minewards in the foreman's wake.

Arriving at the "collar" or entrance to the mine, we donned our ore-stained overalls, lighted our carbide lamps, and walked down the main slope, a grade of 15%. Reaching 80 Room, we passed through the ventilation door and finally came to the headway where the shaft was situated. Here the remaining garments were put on, and so, arrayed in oil-clothes, Cape Ann hat, and long rubber boots, I started up the first ladder, chain in hand. Mr. Neary remained at the bottom of the shaft to hold the measuring tape until I had reached the end of the chain, 100 feet above. Then he would follow for the next measurement.

The shaft was divided into two sections. On one side lay the man-way, consisting of a series of ladders each 15 feet long, separated by platforms of 8 in. by 8 in. timber. The remainder of the shaft was in a "muck shaft" down which the roof was blasted by dynamite for storage in a "hopper" or bin at the foot of the shaft, where fallen rock was loaded into cars, through a chute, for removal to the surface. This bin was generally piled with "muck" to a height of nearly 100 feet, in order that the material stored there would protect the bin from damage by the blasting shots above. As the roof of the shaft was then well over 200 feet up, a clear space of more than 100 feet separated the top of the muck-pile from the top of the shaft.

A line of 8" by 8" timbers separated the muck shaft from the man-way but did not afford perfect protection from falling material as the timbers were spaced about 8 feet apart. Through these gaps, pieces from the roof often found their way onto the ladders, with the result that many steps were broken from time to time.

As was inevitable from the nature of the drive, water poured down the shaft from the roof in a constant stream. The interior of the shaft resembled a waterfall, where the chorus of falling water drowned every other sound, so much so that it was necessary to shout in order to be heard a short distance away. Beyond a distance of 30 feet it was impossible to hear another's voice. A speaking-pipe running the length of the shaft served as a medium of communication between top and bottom.

Our practice in taking measurements was to signal to the man below by tapping on the pipe at intermediate points. On reaching the first 100 feet, I marked the distance on the side of the shaft and then signalled to Mr. Neary that the measurement had been taken by tapping three times on the pipe. On receiving this signal, he started up the man-way to where I stood, and as he came I wound up the chain before proceeding to the next stop. This procedure was repeated for the next 100 feet until at last I walked out on the timber nearest the roof to take the final measurement.

This timber was a piece of 12" by 12", supported in place by "hitches" or grooves cut in the sides of the shaft. It acted as a stand on which the "Turbo" water drills for sinking holes in the roof were placed. The drill bar on which the machine rested was wedged against the roof. On this insecure footing, the drillers carried on their work daily in the midst of streams of water from the roof. By this time, however, they had finished the day's work and departed, taking their drill to the room below.

I found I could just reach the roof with outstretched hands by standing erect on the narrow platform. As I did so, I noticed that the roof had been recently blasted and had not been cleaned, so that pieces of rock hung precariously over my head.

Taking the final measurement - 230 feet - I signalled by three jerks of the chain that the work was finished. Mr. Neary was then 30 feet below me. He recorded the distance in his note-book on hearing my shout of "30 feet!" then turned to retrace his steps down the shaft, leaving me to wind up the chain and follow.

The winding of the chain took a few minutes perhaps, and all the time my foreman was steadily proceeding down the shaft. At last, work completed, I turned about to return along the timber to the stairway, balancing myself with hand on roof.

In this cautious advance, my eyes were naturally directed upward in order to avoid touching any hanging pieces of stone. A Justrite carbide lamp was fastened to the front of my miner's cap. Suddenly a stream of water cascaded into my face, and one drop fell directly on the light leaving me in darkness.

My first impulse, naturally, was to cry out to my only companion, which proved fruitless. Far below, never once looking back, he heard no sound of my predicament as he continued steadily on his way. In growing dismay, heightened by the discovery that I had not means of relighting my lamp, I watched the twinkle of his light move farther and farther away, until at length that solitary gleam disappeared entirely, and I was left alone in darkness heavier than the grave.

Imagine my predicament! Work for the day had everywhere ceased, and save for Mr. Neary and myself, the mine was untenanted. In a short time, I would be the only occupant. I was it seemed doomed to remain there for 13 hours until the next shift entered the shaft at 7 o'clock next morning.

After fifteen minutes of vain shouting, I finally gave up the effort in despair. How many more I spent groping frantically through pocket after pocket in an equally fruitless search for matches, I do not know. At last, returning calmness warned me that I could not stay there in that exposed position on a narrow foot-wide stand. Somehow, I must reach the safer refuge of the ladderday (sic), and need I add, a perilous venture I found it to reach the goal, with a chasm yawning on either side where a slip meant certain death.

There was not a glimmer of light anywhere to guide my steps as, very, very cautiously, I advanced by inches along that narrow path. Fortunately, I remained cool, and knowledge of the consequences of any haste deterred me from taking rash chances. So, at last, I gained the ladder and there, after a breathing-space, commenced the slow and dangerous descent.

After hours of groping along those broken ladders, I finally reached the bottom of the shaft. How I escaped the perils of the platforms that marked every 15 feet of my downward passage, only kind Providence can tell. My steps down the ladders were aided by feeling along the speaking-pipe which was a very uncertain guide at best, as it was not securely fastened in place and swayed with every touch. To rest my weight on it was impossible. At times even this frail "life-line" was denied me, for every landing meant losing contact and recovery could only be made my constant groping. At last, in a perspiring and exhausted condition, I found myself in safety on terra firma, after 3 1/2 hours of blind search.

There still remained the task of reaching the main slope 110 feet outside, where I knew the electric lights set at intervals would enable me to reach surface. Feeling my way along the "pillar", I made progress slowly and came at last to the ventilation door, eventually reaching the slope. There the rails on the track served as a guide between the widely-separated sections of light, until at long last, with an overwhelming feeling of relief, I emerged into the open air.

And what, may the reader ask, was done to the foreman who left me in the predicament I have described? I told him the story, long afterwards when he had left the Company's employ. We have laughed over the incident since and with the passing years it is possible to look back on it with equanimity. Still the experience was one I will never forget.



Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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