Mining Horrors

Turkey's Tragedy and History's Worst Mining Accidents

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

Tuesday’s mining accident in Turkey has devastated the international community with more than 200 workers dead and as many as 120 still trapped. There is a long and tragic history of mining tragedies around the globe. Some have been a result of mismanagement; others, simply horrible coincidences.

Monongah, West Virginia (1907)

Considered the worst mining disaster in American history, a pair of mine explosions in Monongah, West Virginia left at least 362 men and boys dead—later accounts estimate the death toll could be above 500. On December 6, 1907, explosions at mines No. 6 and No. 8 caused quakes that could be felt as far as eight miles away. Most of the victims were immigrants from Italy, Poland, Turkey, and other European counties who worked at the Fairmont Coal Company. 250 women were left widowed and more than 1,000 children orphaned. Rescue workers also suffered after being exposed to the toxic gases following the explosions.

Senghenydd, Wales (1913)

439 people perished in the United Kingdom’s worst mining disaster. On October 14, 1913, at approximately 8:10 a.m., an explosion caused by a buildup of methane gas ripped through the west side of the mine. Those not killed by the blast were trapped under a wall of fire. Though local men, women, and children devoted themselves to rescue efforts for days, only 18 workers emerged alive from that section. The Universal Colliery was found to have violated a number of government safety regulations, all the more disturbing considering more than 80 workers had died at the mine in a separate accident in 1901.

Wankie, Rhodesia (1972)

On June 6, 1972 a methane gas explosion in the Wankie Colliery in northwestern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) proved to be one of the most fatal in African history. Workers came from all over Africa, including Malawi, Mozambique, and Namibia. Hundreds were killed instantly by the blast, but others were trapped alive and suffocated. After four days of rescue efforts, mine officials decided to seal off the colliery and end the search for lives and bodies. In total, there were 427 casualties.

Courrières, France (1906)

The “Courrières Catastrophe” still ranks as Europe’s most deadly mining accident. On March 10, 1906, 1,099 people perished in the mine in Northern France. Days before the explosion, smoke and toxic gas were detected, and a union delegate warned the Courrières Mining Company to rectify these issue. However, the company refused to halt production and lose profits. That greed proved lethal in more ways than one. After a leak of flammable gas caused an explosion that spread rapidly through the mine, the company performed only the most minimal rescue efforts. Only three days after the accident, the company placed a wall over the area in which miners were trapped in order to preserve remaining coal sources from the fire. By their own grit, 13 miners managed to emerge alive 20 days after the fire on March 30, suggesting many others could have been rescued.

Benxihu, China (1942)

To date, the Benxihu (Honkeiko) colliery was the site of the most lethal mining accidents on record. Located in the Benxi, Liaoning region of China, 1,549 miners were killed after gas exploded in one of the shafts during the heart of World War II on April 26, 1942. The mine was originally under joint Japanese-Chinese control, but after the Japanese invaded Liaoning in the 1930s, it came solely under their control. The Japanese forced Chinese laborers to work in the mines, which was in horrible condition before the accident. Cholera and typhoid were rampant and overseers used pick handles to physically force miners into the shafts. It took ten days for the Japanese to clear the corpses from the mine, yet they refused to let Chinese relatives visit the area, building an electrical fence to keep them away. Honkeiko continued to operate until Japan surrendered in 1945.