How the disaster began
For the twelve school friends, their lives would soon change forever. It had started about two weeks ago in a lovely old four-bedroom house built in the mid-19th century. Constructed of stones from the local mines, it still had the old-style Rayburn cooker. The house was covered with ivy and stood on its own, surrounded by three acres of land, on the outskirts of the nearby town. It looked a little out of place with the newly built houses along the same road. The three-acre plot was surrounded by a high fence. In the garden was a well, an orchard of fruit trees, and there was a large pond full of fish that had been caught from a nearby lake. All around this lovely garden were beds of brightly coloured flowers. There was also a breeding pen for John Anderson’s German Shepherd dogs, alongside the two garages. The house had been up for sale for some time, but had recently been sold. Finalisation of the sale was to be in four weeks’ time.
On this particular morning, as the sun was just about to rise, the silence was broken by the sound of hollering from inside the Anderson household.
‘Jeff, get out of that bed! You’ll be late for the school bus again,’ shouted his mother. Her name was Linda and she has just turned forty. She had long, blonde hair, a pleasing figure of medium build, and blue eyes. She was a kind and loving person that attracted people to her, which made her good at her job as a qualified nurse.
‘Yes, Mom,’ Jeff called back. ‘Mom. be down in two ticks.’
‘You’d better be, my boy, or I will give your breakfast to the dogs!’
Within minutes, Jeff was sitting down eating with his family. He was fifteen years old, good looking with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He was nearing six foot tall, a bit skinny, with a lovely smile. He was studying to be an electrical engineer, which had been his lifelong ambition.
His sister, Sharon, who had almost finished her breakfast, was a year older than him and attended the same school. She was hoping to be a doctor one day. Tall for a girl, but not matching the height of her brother, Sharon had long blonde hair, similar to her mother’s, tied back with a red ribbon. Her blue eyes and engaging smile most certainly reflected a very beautiful young girl.
Their father, John, was in his early forties. He was an ex-Navy Seal but now ran a cab service. He was a little taller than his son, well built and strong as an ox. He looked at his children as they sat round the kitchen table.
‘Remind me again, you two,’ he said. ‘When are you supposed to be going on this school trip exploring those old mines?’
Jeff was still rushing to eat his breakfast. Swallowing the last bit of toast, he stood up and replied.
‘Dad, it’s at the end of this week. Are you thinking of coming as well?’ He smiled broadly and winked at his mother, who was also smiling.
‘No, that sort of thing does not interest me at all,’ said John. ‘I’d rather spend the day fishing.’
Linda started to clear the table as Jeff and Sharon got ready to go to school. Picking up their school bags, they kissed their parents before walking out and saying, ‘Bye Mom, bye Dad, see you tonight.’
After they had left, Linda and John started washing and drying up the breakfast dishes.
‘John,’ said Linda after they had sat down, ‘we have agreed to let them go on Friday, to see how this area was mined many years ago. Did you not say to me, quite some time ago, that your great-great-grandparents had been miners?’
‘Yes, darling, I did,’ replied John. ‘But I don’t know much about them, only what my father told me. My father, like me, did not want to take up that profession as it was very dangerous.’
‘Dangerous?’ said Linda. ‘What do you mean by that? You’ve got me worried now.’
‘Linda, there is no danger,’ said John. ‘These days, they keep the mines safe for the public to view, so our two will be fine. The schools around here would never let their students go if there was a chance of anything happening to them. I was talking about the dangers my great-great-grandfather faced when working in them, not like the mines of today.’
‘I hope you’re right about that,’ said Linda. ‘You got me worried about them having an accident or their equipment breaking down.’
‘Darling, remind me this weekend there is a lot of junk in the attic that needs to be thrown out when we move,’ said John. ‘And I think there is a lot of mining tackle in boxes somewhere in the attic. I remember seeing it once.’ He jumped up from the table. ‘Look at the time! I will be late to pick up those people. Goodbye, love you, be back later. I’ll leave you the car today.’ He kissed his wife on the cheek and rushed out to the garage, jumping into the Ford 4×4 Crew Cab to collect some clients from the local airport and drive them to the Circle O’ Ranch, which was located up in the mountains.
Meanwhile, Jeff and Sharon had arrived at school. It was the last week before the school midterm break and all the students that had their parents’ permission to go on the trip to the mines were told to assemble in an empty classroom. The teacher handed them envelopes with written instructions about what they would need to take and the dangers they might come across when going into old mines.
The teacher, Mr Brown, told them all to sit down and be quiet. ‘Listen carefully to what I am going to tell you,’ he began. ‘Early on Friday morning, you will all be picked up at three separate pick-up points. You must go to whichever one is the nearest to where you live. All your gear for this trip will be packed into the school bus the day before.
So, from now until Thursday I will explain all that you need to take with you and how to use it, amongst other things. The day before we leave, you need to ensure you have all your items, including special mine overalls that will keep you warm and protect you from cuts. These you will only put on‘just before you enter the mine. Also, you will be given rucksacks to carry all the things you are taking, so mark your names on them. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, sir,’ the students nodded.
‘You are all interested in doing different activities, so your rucksacks will reflect your interests,’ continued Mr Brown. ‘For instance, Sharon will carry the medical gear in case it should be needed. The overalls are to keep your clothes clean as well.
We will be going to the safest mines that are not too far from here, called the Empire mines. Oh, and another thing, please wear your school walking boots as the walkways will be very rocky.’ Mr Brown then indicated to one of the students. ‘Now, come here, Barry.’
Barry was one of the oldest students amongst them. Big and strong, well over six foot tall, he was into weightlifting and so was very fit. He had black hair and dark brown eyes and he believed most of the girls fancied him. The other students had nicknamed him Buster.
Barry went and stood beside Mr Brown, who addressed the other students in the group. ‘I suppose you are all wondering why I have asked Barry to stand here. It is because he will be your team leader. Barry has been to these caves twice already, so he will be your captain. I would ask you all to obey him as I am not going inside the mines with you. Right, you can go, Buster… sorry, Barry.’
The students laughed, but Mr Brown held up his hand. ‘Stop laughing! This is a serious matter. Another thing… I suppose some of you may already have been in the mines already. If so, then please tell the others so they know what to expect. Okay, that is enough for now, so read your handouts and ask me any questions afterwards.’
The students opened their envelopes eagerly, wanting the trip to happen soon. They were overcome with excitement as they studied the instructions.
My name is George Adams and I am the safety officer at the Empire Public Mine Adventures. I am going to point out the wonderful things you will see in the mines, as well as the potential dangers that you could encounter while exploring them. Remember, that my mine rangers will be with you at all times.
This hobby for enthusiasts can be a wonderful experience, especially for the students amongst you who are into archaeology. The mines that you will be exploring have been excavated to allow you to walk through, unlike the poor miners of the past who sometimes had to crawl on their hands and knees to reach the mine face.
Your school will provide you with all the required equipment, which will include a lighted helmet and extra strong boots along with climbing equipment.
What dangers might you face when exploring these old mines?
The answer is that you could get injured, or even killed, if you are not aware of the dangers, which are not obvious to see, and accidents must be avoided at all costs. Even in today’s working mines, the entrances and passageways can get blocked by ceiling collapses. If an alternative access around the collapsed area cannot be found, in most cases the mine is left to decay. These mines are the most dangerous for anyone entering them. You will see that these mines have been sealed off and have a sign outside them saying DANGEROUS HAZARDS CLOSED NO ENTRY.
This is a warning that you must stay clear. In mines, there is a problem with water. When the mines were abandoned, the pumps would have been taken away and, as a result, the mine would fill up with water. This is especially the case if it had been mined below the entrance level, as the water would be unable to drain out until it reached that level or further inside the mine. Sometimes, in mines there is a reservoir at a much higher level than you find above a dry entrance – or, as miners call it, an Adit. This could have been used to generate power for electric light and machinery that could now all be under water. I can only stress that, if you have younger siblings, never take them with you as it is impossible to watch them all the time.
It has been reported that most people who have been killed were children who were just playing, whether with adults or playing within sight of adult, especially in open-cast mines like quarries. There have been two hundred and fifty deaths reported up until now. These deaths were not related to exploring the public mines as you are going to do, but were mainly recreational deaths and accidents within the mine sites. There have been deaths caused by the curiosity seekers in unsafe mines. The mine would then be sealed off by bulldozing the entrance and putting wire fencing around the mine entrance. This is done in a lot of cases where the mines are near populated areas and to keep the public out, especially around the Death Valley mines, hence the name.
Please take heed and ‘stay away and you will stay alive’ as the public safety campaign notice says. Everyone needs to be aware of the dangers.
It is possible to go to other mines that are not open to the general public, but only for experienced miners and cavers once they have passed our tough training exercises. This, then, will enable you to go into mines that have winze shafts or even very steep inclines. By then, you will have the technical skills to do rappelling or, if you like, to use our rope techniques. When accessing these mines, most of you will be roped together using our techniques for your safety and organised by our guides.
Some mines not open to the public can be used for growing mushrooms, but you will not be allowed access to any of them. In the past, early settlers used the caves for shelter and to grow mushrooms.
You must obey the sign that is written on the entrance of all the mines.
PLEASE ONLY TAKE PICTURES IN OUR MINES. ONLY LEAVE YOUR FOOTPRINTS BEHIND – NOTHING ELSE.
I have listed the most important dangers that nearly every mine has hidden away from the unsuspecting public:
1. Be aware of unstable openings, and check the walls when entering.
2. Look out for cave collapses due to rotten timber structures. If there are any, then do not enter.
3. The killer you cannot see is deadly gas. Without a gas mask, you will be overcome and die.
4. There can be undetonated explosives along with toxic chemicals left behind used to extract minerals. They are just waiting for the unsuspecting explorer.
5. Be aware of reptiles like the rattlesnake, also poisonous insects like spiders.
6. Then there are the wild animals like the brown bear that sometimes make their home in the mine.
7. Bats are always living in old, abandoned mines and they have been known to carry rabies.
8. The biggest killer is a rat bite. These rodents can carry all different types of diseases.
I hope you will all pay careful attention to these instructions and that you enjoy your cave expedition.
After the students had all read the manual, some of them could not believe what they might encounter after reading about the creepy crawlies and other dangers. Mr Brown pushed his reading glasses down onto his nose and looked over the top of them at the students.
‘Right, you all seem to be finished,’ he shouted.
‘Yes, sir, we have.’
‘Then who wants to ask me any questions?’
Almost every girl had their hand up, causing Mr Brown to laugh. Before they could ask him anything, he shouted loudly, ‘Young ladies, before you say a word, these mines we are going to visit have been cleared of everything you have read about.’
He could hear the sigh of relief as their hands went down. The boys laughed loudly, with Buster being the loudest, until they heard Mr Brown’s voice.
‘Silence! This is not a laughing matter.’
The students regained their composure and settled down. ‘Thank you,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Now, let’s sort out who is taking what with them on Friday.’
It took the rest of the day to organise everyone, listing the goals they hoped to achieve when going on to college. It was well into the afternoon when there was a shout from Mr Brown.
‘Time to dismiss. See you all tomorrow morning in the assembly hall.’
‘Yes, sir,’ all the students shouted as they gathered up their belongings and walked off to catch their various school buses.
On arriving back home, both Jeff and Sharon could not contain their excitement about the trip to the mines.
‘You two seem to be wrapped up in this trip on Friday,’ said Linda. ‘But I have to stop you now before your father gets home. I want you both to put on your working clothes and make a start on cleaning the attic out.’
‘Yes, Mom, but do we have to do it now?’ moaned Sharon.
‘Yes, right away,’ her mother replied. ‘We will be moving in less than four weeks. Also, your father said there are some old mining relics up there somewhere.’
No sooner had she got the words out of her mouth, than the two teenagers were gone, both of them racing to get to the attic first.
‘Be careful up there, both of you!’ Linda called up to them. ‘And don’t make too much mess fetching the things down.’
‘Okay, Mom,’ they both shouted as they started racing up and down the attic stairs, taking everything they found into the spare bedroom.
Two hours later, they had cleared the attic of its contents, which included boxes, old lamps and bits of old furniture, and had placed them around the room for their father to look at.
‘Sharon, Jeff,’ Linda called up to them, ‘your father is here and dinner is ready to be served. Wash your hands and clean up before you come down.’
They hurriedly washed and changed their clothes and rushed downstairs to greet their father, eager to tell him about their forthcoming trip.
‘Will you all sit down, please?’ said Linda as she served dinner.
When they had finished eating, their father looked at the two teenagers and smiled. ‘I hear you have been cleaning out the attic. Have you found anything of value?’
‘No, Dad, only junk,’ said Jeff. ‘Nothing of value. We will burn everything tomorrow after you have checked it out.’
‘Okay, well, there is no time like the present,’ John replied. ‘So, Sharon, you help your mother clean up, while Jeff and I go upstairs and look through everything.’
Jeff and his father went upstairs to the spare room and started going through everything. They put the things they did not want to one side, which seemed to be almost everything until they reached an old, wooden box. To their amazement, inside was a plan of the layout of a mine. Jeff’s great-great-grandfather, Albert, had put it in there with various papers that explained the different minerals he had come across whilst mining. The most important find in the box was a diary, covered in dust and filth. Written by Albert, it described the everyday life of the workings of this mine. The name of the mine was inscribed on the front page, Ned’s Snake Creek Mine.
‘Dad, can I read this please?’ asked Jeff.
‘Jeff, you can keep it, if you want it,’ said John. ‘I do not want to read it. But you never know, you might find something useful in it for your trip on Friday.’
‘Thanks, Dad, I will.’
They did not find anything else worth keeping and went back downstairs to find cups of milky cocoa waiting for them. John and Jeff told Sharon and Linda what they had found, explaining that most of it was nothing but junk except for the wooden box. Eventually, John told the youngsters that it was time for bed and they both made their way up the stairs.
After Jeff had showered and got into bed, he picked up the diary and started to read. He was excitedly reading through the contents, but it was late and he was only a third of the way through it when he fell asleep, with the dairy still beside him.
The next morning, it was all back to the same routine. Shouts from Mom, late for the school bus, Dad rushing off in his taxi. When they were on the bus, Jeff told his sister what he had read so far in the diary, and could not wait to tell all the other students who were going on the trip.
When they had arrived at school and had gathered in the assembly hall,, Jeff told his friends about his discovery. Buster said that Ned’s Snake Creek mine had been closed for a long time and most definitely would be unsafe by now. He said he had a good idea of its whereabouts but that, although he had never been there, he had heard it was very difficult to find. When Jeff heard about the mine being unsafe, he was a little disappointed as he would have liked to have gone inside to explore it. However, he decided he would still carry on reading the diary regardless and tell them about it afterwards.
Just then, the hall door opened and in came Mr Brown. ‘Right, have you all thoroughly absorbed the information on these mines?’ he said, addressing all the students.
‘Yes, sir,’ they all replied.
‘Good. Then if you are all ready, we will go and sort out the equipment that you will need for your mine exploration.’
During the day, they sorted out all the items they needed to take with them. The main reason they had to do this was in case there was an accident and they would at least have first aid and food and water with them, even though there would already be the usual safety measures in place. However, as this was a school exercise, they needed the extra equipment in their rucksacks to be on the safe side.
Mr Brown double-checked their rucksacks and sighed. ‘Okay, you all seem to have the correct equipment needed in your rucksacks. Barry, I want you to take these mining fanatics with their loaded rucksacks and run around the school playing fields until I tell you to stop, but without their overalls.’
As the students were running, some of them began complaining and wishing they had not volunteered. Little did they realise that this exercise would take place every day for one hour until Thursday arrived.