Silesia is Poland’s industrial heartland and the region’s coal mines – employing more people than any other sector and fueling 90 per cent of the country’s electricity generation – are vital to the national economy. But it’s a dangerous business, with miners operating in difficult conditions, often exacerbated by lack of investment following the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. With its poor accident record the Halemba mine was no exception, though there had been nothing to compare with the tragedy that occurred on November 21 2006.
On that day, a kilometer below the surface, equipment was being recovered from Halemba’s 1,030 m (3,380 ft) level – closed the previous March after a dangerous concentration of methane gas was detected by a specialist, who was trapped there for five days after a minor explosion. But the equipment left behind was valuable and – despite the continuing presence of methane – that consisted of 23 miners ranging in age from 20 to 60, including inexperienced young hands supplied by private contractors.
It would prove to be a fatal assignment. A violent gas explosion ripped through the mine, almost certainly killing the unfortunate victims instantly. Six bodies were quickly recovered, but the remaining 17 were not found for two days, after rescue teams braved persistent methane to dig through collapsed tunnels.
Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski declared a state of national mourning and arrived at the mine to commiserate with victims’ families in particular and the shocked mining community in general. In the manner of politicians everywhere after such happenings, he promised a thorough official enquiry but offered little hope that it would get to the root cause of the problem – poor safety standards in Poland’s mines – by suggesting that the likely culprit was that old scapegoat ‘natural forces’.
When: November 21 2006
Where: Ruda Siaska, Silesia, Poland
Death toll: 23 dead
You should know: Despite the Polish prime minister’s suggestion that the fatal explosion might be seen as an act of God, state prosecutors did not agree. After an exhaustive investigation, 27 individuals faced criminal charges in 2008, ranging from endangering the lives of miners resulting in death down to negligence and falsifying documents.