Deadly September: 2 disasters that shook Queensland, more than 50 years apart

Published: 19 Sep 2017

The 19th & 20th of September are memorable in Queensland for the shock and sorrow they caused at Mount Mulligan (1921) and 54 years later at Kianga (1975).

Mount Mulligan - 19 September 1921

Mount Mulligan is 170kms west of Cairns. Coal mining supported the town from 1914 to 1958. On 19 September 1921 an explosion of a massive scale killed 75 mineworkers – a quarter of the town’s population. Until then, the town did not even have a cemetery.

A rescue effort which began immediately after the explosion and continued for 5 days was fruitless.

The cause of the explosion, which left 83 children fatherless, was never determined beyond doubt, despite a Royal Commission. However, of several theories advanced it seems likely that the firing of an explosive on top of a block of machine cut coal, not placed in a shot hole initiated the disaster. It is also recorded that dust levels were extremely high, providing a highly combustible atmosphere. Procedures for handling of explosives at the mine were lax, there was little in the way of stone dusting and watering, and it had been over 5 months since the last inspection by the Mines Department.

Management carelessness on multiple levels had dire repercussions at Mt Mulligan.

Victims are transported away from Mt Mulligan mine on handcarts

Kianga - 20 September 1975

Kianga was a sister operation of Moura mine.

On 20 September 1975 a thunderous explosion tore through the underground mine, killing 13 men.

On an early morning inspection, Deputy Bill Allison detected signs of heating, which were reported to the manager. It was decided to establish seals and a full day shift was spent on this task.

In the afternoon a shift of volunteers was brought in to continue the work. A time after the start of the afternoon shift people on the surface found the sky blotted out by a vast cloud of dust. An enormous force tore the roofed walkway to bit, shattered the fan house and hurled a car 30 metres. The explosion could be heard in Moura, 27 kilometres away.

Tests taken after the explosion showed that the air underground was lethally toxic, with a temperature of at least 1000 degrees Centigrade. There was no hope for any of those underground. With a clear danger of further explosions, the decision was made to seal the mine.

Australia wide people wanted to help, and a fund for assistance to victims’ families was established.

The Western Australian Trades & Labor Council published an advertisement in the West Australian newspaper which read in part:

“How often are mineworkers attacked by Governments, the media and the employers when they take action for proper safety and reasonable wages for the dangerous work they undertake. Remember next time you read such nonsense.”

We still remember today. RIP.

Memorial service held on the surface at Kianga

You can download an account of the Kianga disaster, as recorded by Pete Thomas in his book "Miners in the 1970s".