A collapse of a section of the Beaconsfield Gold Mine, 925 metres below the small West Tamar Valley township at 9.23pm on Anzac Day 2006, trapping three miners, triggered one of the biggest mine rescues in Australia’s history. For two weeks the world watched as the drama unfolded, attracting an enormous media crowd and international media attention. The rescue is now the subject of a television mini-series but, barring some miracle or a dramatic increase in gold prices, Beaconsfield Gold Mine will close at the end of June.

Mike Lester, who was called in as a public relations consultant to help the mine manage media during the two-week rescue, recalls what it was like under the glare of intense media scrutiny.

Time was running out. Everything seemed to be taking too long. Mine rescue workers were getting tired and edgy. It was growing harder by the hour to keep control of those working underground – Todd and Brant’s mates. There had already been breaches of discipline and there was a real risk of someone doing something foolhardy – of rushing in for a ‘snatch and grab’ – putting their own lives and the lives of Todd Russell and Brant Webb at risk.

This was the hard part for the rescue team, holding their nerve and sticking to the plan. They knew that, despite all of the precautions, if something went wrong before they got them out, they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves. The mood in the control room flipped about with every change in fortune. Sometimes it was up when something worked well and they seemed to be making progress, then it flipped back to the other extreme when something went wrong. On one such black day, the blue-overalled, bearded and bedraggled underground mine manager Pat Ball felt it was time for a pep talk to the small group crowded into the rescue operations room:

“Listen, there have already been four miracles here. The first that they were in the cage when the rock fall occurred; the second that the cage held; the third that the hanging wall rock held and it was a fourth miracle that Salty and I just happened to go into 925 when we did and call to them and hear them respond. We’re going to get them out”. These scenes are real. They reveal the tension in the tightly packed, metal-lined control room for two weeks in a cold autumn with some 200 journalists, camera crews, photographers, outdoor broadcast vans and hundreds more onlookers craning over the boundary fence every day and night.

On Anzac Day, 17 men were working underground at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine, having started their shift just a few hours earlier. Two of this crew – Todd Russell and Brant Webb – were in a tunnel 925 metres below ground. This tunnel was referred to as the ‘925 metre level’ (925mL). These two were working out of a basket. The third man, Larry Knight, operated a forklift cherry picker machine called a telehandler. It was this machine that held them there.

A seismic event measuring 2.3 on the Richter scale, akin to a mini earthquake, occurred about 40 metres from where the three were working. It brought down tonnes of rock, which killed Larry Knight and trapped Todd and Brant in the cherry picker cage. It also shook houses on the surface, waking many. Fate conspired to bring together all the necessary elements to thrust the small West Tamar Valley township of Beaconsfield into the middle of one of the biggest media storms of the last decade.

The media presence was overwhelming for those involved directly in the rescue. Mine rescue workers had to run the gauntlet past crowds of media cars, vans, journalists, photographers and television crews. Helicopters hovering above the control room made it difficult to think and hear; and their presence was a nerve-wracking constant reminder that the world was watching. Families were pursued. Rescue workers, trying to get a few hours’ sleep after the exhaustion and tension of being underground, were sometimes woken by journalists banging on their doors seeking interviews.

The first media inquiry following the mine collapse came from The Examiner newspaper around 2.30am on 26 April and it ran the story on the front page that morning. At 8am Matt Gill held his first media conference, which attracted just a handful of journalists. Normally that is about as much media as you would expect in Tasmania. It was a terrible tragedy, but there have been other, bigger, mining disasters in Australia, including Tasmania, so why did it attract so much media attention?

There was a series of circumstances that attracted the media, then kept them there. Some of the first media cars on site had Targa Tasmania media signage the annual race was already on Tasmanian roads. The 10th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre was also looming later that week, and some mainland based news shows were already heading to Tasmania with their celebrity teams and outdoor broadcast vans. Once they started reporting, they were obliged to stay it out to the end. As well, the miraculous discovery of Todd and Brant alive after five days, when most believed them to be dead, was a human interest story too compelling to ignore.

At the height of the rescue, the local park just outside the mine’s gates had become Winnebago City. Outdoor broadcast vans, their satellite dishes pointed to the heavens, and emblazoned with Nine, Seven, Ten and the ABC logos, seemed to be everywhere. It seemed like everybody who was anybody in the Australian media had arrived on our doorstep – Koshy and Mel, Carl Stephanovic, Naomi Robson, Tracey Grimshaw, Richard Carlton, a multitude of print reporters, and overseas outfits like CNN.

We were getting calls around the clock for updates. Adding to the incessant presence of Australian media, were calls from the likes of the BBC and CNN and requests for interviews from people like US daytime television queen, Oprah. At the peak of the rescue, not a room was available in a hotel, motel or bed and breakfast establishment in Beaconsfield or any of the small towns within half an hour’s drive. The miners were wary – even resentful of the media, so they erected tarpaulins along the fences and gates overlooking the minehead frame and change rooms, to give some privacy to rescue workers.

The media wanted to ask about what caused the rock fall, and related safety issues, but for both legal and practical reasons we determined we would not be distracted by such issues. The rescue team’s entire energy and focus had to be on the search and rescue. The mine was also very conscious of the needs and sensitivities of families and friends, and made it a rule that they would not say anything publicly that hadn’t already been told to the families.

My role was to sit in on the rescue operations meetings, take notes and prepare media releases. I also circulated among the journalists to find out what they wanted to know, and where they were going with the story that day or night. On the morning of Thursday 27th the media were clamouring for an update to make it into their breakfast news shows, and we had arranged for Matt to go out to face them at around 7am. He then got a call from underground that shook him and everyone else. They thought they had found a body.

There was no way Matt could go out immediately. He looked terrible. He had to confirm details. He had to alert the police and the coroner. He had to tell families and other stakeholders. When Matt eventually held a media conference to tell the media that they had found one body and had grave concerns for the other two, his voice quavered and he almost cried. It was the hardest day to endure.

The discovery of Larry Knight’s body slowed down the rescue efforts. Much care had to be taken, because if the other two were still alive, any rush then might have endangered them and the rescuers. The mine chose to dig a 36 metre-long rescue tunnel through stable rock, which involved drilling and blasting, bolting and strapping, which was slow work.

At about 5.40pm the following Sunday, after a slow day of reporting progress, Matt took a call in the control room from Pat Ball, who was underground supervising the search and rescue. Pat passed on the startling news that he and underground foreman Steve Saltmarsh (Salty) had got to within four metres of the telehandler. They had called out to see if anyone was there, and heard two distinct voices. The next two hours were frenetic at the mine. The hard part was to contain everybody; to settle them down and think it through.

At around 6.25pm they dispatched someone to tell the families. The next step was to tell the world, and no one was prepared for the reaction that news would cause. It was just a brief statement to say that, “a short time ago rescuers at the Beaconsfield Mine said they believe they have located the two miners missing since last Tuesday night. Indications are that the two men are still alive”. It caused pandemonium among the media and in the township. With that very brief statement Beaconsfield took a giant leap from being a mine accident and rescue story to one of human courage and survival; a story of death and life. The world was about to discover Beaconsfield. From that day forward the media pack grew and just kept growing. Every turn, every delay, every detail added to the tension and the drama.

Words: Mike Lester

© 2011 Tasmanian Lifestyle Magazine
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