Fire in the dark: the astonishing story of the Courrieres mine disaster

Munger, Sean
Date Written:  2014-03-10
Year Published:  2014
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX22180

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 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 Courrieres 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.

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