Saturday, May 13, 2006

The dust settles in Beaconsfield

Until Anzac Day 2006, the primary claim to fame of the mining town of Beaconsfield, Tasmania was that it was the first place in Australia to introduce fluoridation in the water. That occurred in 1953. The town had to wait another 50 years before some serious seismic activity made it famous again.

Beaconsfield is on the north coast of Tasmania some 40km north of Launceston on the Tamar coast. Gold was first discovered on the eastern slopes of Cabbage Tree Hill, west of the current township of Beaconsfield, in 1877. An underground mine, known as the Tasmania Gold Mine, operated between 1877 and 1914. Water was the main enemy, the pumps could not keep up with the floods in the mines and this, plus the shortage of labour and materials at the onset of World War I, forced its closure and the flooding of the mine. Drilling in the 1980s discovered a new high grade lode underneath the old mine called the Tasmanian Reef. The mine reopened in 1999 after the flood damage was fixed.

Drilling below the 1000 metre level has shown that the Tasmania Reef is still regarded as the best in Australia and perhaps even the world. The quality of the lode guarantees a future for the mine. The Beaconsfield mine has been high on the crest of the gold boom posting an after-tax profit of $7.5 million last financial year.

Or at least it rode high until hit by two earthquakes. Although the Beaconsfield mine is not in active seismic zone, the April 25 incident was the second earthquake in less than six months. Leading seismologists say it is a well-established scientific fact that sustained mining induces earthquakes. The first quake occurred in October 2005 which caused a rock fall and temporary halting of operations. But there were no casualties. The April quake was roughly the same strength – 2.1 on the Richter scale. But the impact was much greater. On the evening of Anzac Day, 17 miners had been digging for ore in one of the tunnels about 925 metres below when an earthquake shattered rock around them. 14 men made it out safely, but three remained unaccounted for among the underground debris.

On the following day mine manager Matthew Gill held out hope that the trapped trio might still be alive saying “there's every reason to believe that in the general area, ventilation is reasonable”. His optimism seemed unfounded when one day later, rescuers found the body of Larry Knight, one of three men unaccounted for. Here the story looked like it was petering out. It was surely only a matter of time when the other two bodies would be recovered. Then on Sunday the 30th, the extraordinary but sketchy news that "some form of radio monitoring and communication" had shown the two miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb were still alive. They had survived by drinking drips of rancid and mineralised water that run through the mine. On the Monday morning, the town erupted. Kaye Russell, Todd’s wife, enthused “They're alive, they're talking to us, they're in contact, and they're gonna get 'em out.” They had survived the rockfall thanks to the protection of a small cherry picker cage. The miners were in good spirits but they used “quite a few swear words - get us out of here, you know, it's fucking cold and cramped in here, I want to get out.”

But that wasn’t going to be easy. Rescuers were less than 12 metres from them, but had to abandon the blasting technique they had been using because of safety concerns.

Enter a new player Australian Workers' Union (AWU) national secretary and soon-to-be federal ALP MP Bill Shorten. Shorten is being groomed by Labor as the Bob Hawke of the noughties and he was onsite to co-ordinate the union response to the disaster. And because of his media skills he shared the limelight with the mine manager Gill. Shorten announced on May 1 the drilling was going slowly but surely, and could take up to another 48 hours.

“Another 48 hours” was to become the mantra of the mission. And this was to become a major mission. The announcement that the miners were alive meant that an armada of Australia’s big media guns descended on Beaconsfield.

They were there so that they could celebrate the rescue in “another 48 hours” with their audiences. And so on Wednesday May 3 they could now begin the risky process of creating a tunnel through the final 12 metres or so of solid rock standing between the men and freedom. That would take another 48 hours.

The men were provided with protein drinks, vitamin capsules, biscuits, glow-sticks, space blankets, cameras, magazines and ipods via a nine-centimetre pipe.

On Friday May 5 it was announced that a rock barrier had slowed progress and the rescue would stretch into the weekend.

The media contingent was becoming restless and decided to eat its own. The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported a story about the Channel 7 “Today Tonight” host Naomi Robson saying she was “doing nothing but hair and make-up" since arriving at the site on Monday night. Ms Robson denied the allegation in her high rating program citing jealousy from the other media.

On Sunday May 7 as the mine manager Matthew Gill gloomily announced another delay, he was asked a question on mine safety by veteran Channel 9 reporter Richard Carleton. His question was: "On the 26th of October last year, not 10 metres from where these men are now entombed, you had a 400-tonne rock fall. Why is it -- is it the strength of the seam, or the wealth of the seam -- that you continue to send men in to work in such a dangerous environment?"
Gill refused to answer citing the recovery effort instead. Carleton left the conference and collapsed and died of a heart attack some twenty metres away.

After yet another 48 hours, Russell and Webb were finally freed in the early hours of Tuesday May 9. This was the same day of Larry Knight’s funeral. Graham Mulligan, spokesman for a Christian motorcycle club which escorted Larry Knight’s coffin from the church to a nearby cemetery said “This whole ordeal has taken us from horror to shock, grief, sadness, joy and happiness and then back to sadness again.”

Now the media scrum gathers around the survivors in order to buy their stories. Millions of dollars will change hands. Bill Shorten wants an independent inquiry into the disaster. The mine has deferred the interim 2006 dividend until further notice. No one knows whether the mine will re-open though there is much goodwill to make it happen. Beaconsfield Benefit Concerts and Footy Shows from the town have been arranged.

Everyone feels good about themselves in this sensational story. However at the other end of Australia, a similar story occurred with precious little media attention. Three Torres Strait islanders lost at sea for 22 days switched their mobile phones off to conserve the batteries before finally getting enough of a signal to text message for help. They were found on the same day as the miners.

The Islanders were black and didn’t attract the same attention as two white men in Tasmania. This story also shows the media's obsession with crisis, drama and emotion-packed stories like Beaconsfield. The story had blanket coverage (and therefore other events did not get a look in.) All the media were involved and jostled with each other for exclusive angles. The media sent its biggest players to cover it. And this caused the sideshow mentioned earlier.

The Torres rescue did not have the same drama. A helicopter fished them out of the water with no network cameras in tow. It did not have sustained media drama.

The islanders survived the same length of time without the little luxuries that the miners had. They had no contact with the outside world, no dry clothes, no water, no magazines and no ipods. But the sad truth is their story will never have the value to mainstream advertisers that the Tasmanian story will offer.

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