Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Disaster

by Elizabeth Barsham

The hospital entrance hall is dimly lit. The only lights are on a television screen in the corner, and they are elsewhere; rescue teams work around the clock. The sound is off and all is silence. Square black steel and plastic chairs line the walls of a large vacant room. Not the usual waiting room – there is a hand basin half way along one wall. Offices are empty, but for another soundless television set showing flames flickering red, reflecting an eerie glow in an unlit room.
I venture down a passage to the first ward but no nurse rushes to protest my presence. The ward is empty. Stripped empty, leaving only the curved curtain tracks and a single curtain offering no privacy. In the middle of the floor is a child’s picnic, a cloth and a picnic basket, pretty little china cups and saucers, plates, bowls and teapot scattered as their youthful owner fled. Some contain dark liquid – not coffee. Others are buried under piles of sugar or flour, domestic echo of the mullock heaps outside. By now I am feeling decidedly uneasy. The incongruity of discovering several lumps of ore, not large, but significant, resting on the carpet behind me does not help.
Backing out, I make my way towards the other end of the building, confused and alone in the dark passage. Everything is wrong. Emergency lights flash red and blue in a darkened room; elsewhere windows glow with light that provides no reassurance for the curtains are drawn. Doors marked “staff only” gape open on empty spaces. Flour is piled in corners.
I reach a glass door marked “nursery – no entry”. The room behind it is brightly lit but lifeless, cold and silent. At the end of the passage I am stopped by a locked door and stand in the gloom, hearing only the odd creaks and whispers of an abandoned building. The sudden blast of a warning siren is a shock. It does not stop, it goes on, and on, is joined by another, wailing away into the distance. I have no idea what to do, what to expect 
“Where’s the art? There’s nothing in here!”
Raucous laughter.
“Hey, Mum, there’s the bathroom – ‘ope the plumbing still works.”
More laughter. Someone whistling. The sirens have fallen silent.
“What’s this stuff? Flour? They 'aven't bothered making the bread.”
“’Ang on – what’s them rocks doing there? P’raps they’re supposed to ‘ve come through the window . . .”
Jarred back into another reality, that of the 2012 Queenstown Heritage Festival, I creep away before the newcomers catch me. We are visiting STILL, an installation by Darren Cook and Matt Warren at the old West Coast District Hospital. I have my interpretation of this installation; they have theirs. All of us are right.


This year’s Heritage Festival coincides with the centenary of Tasmania’s worst mining disaster. Forty two miners died when a pump house fire at the North Lyell copper mine filled the tunnels with deadly carbon monoxide. At least fifty more were trapped on a lower level and eventually rescued after more than a hundred hours underground.
The opening day of the festival centred on events commemorating the tragedy and celebrating the heroism of the men who rescued the survivors.


In 1912 the railway, with rescue equipment and experts rushed to the mine by train from Burnie and Strahan, played a key role. Later, a funeral car decorated with wreaths carried bodies to the cemetery for mass burial.
The West Coast Wilderness Railway has been kept busy with re-enactments, including drawing a reconstructed funeral car to the cemetery for a commemorative service on Friday, 12 October 2012.

The final commemorative event takes place after sunset on Friday evening.

A century ago people carried candles in bottles, a cheap and simple lantern. Tonight children parade down Orr St carrying LED’s in colourful paper lanterns, one for each of the miners killed in the 1912 mine disaster. At the railway station they line up along the neat white picket fence while the story of the fire in the mine is read aloud then, one by one, the lanterns are hung carefully on the reconstructed funeral carriage that re-enacted the 1912 trip to the cemetery this morning. A lone singer begins the old hymn, Nearer My God To Thee; singers in the crowd join in.  A blast of the whistle and the little engine moves off slowly, steaming away through the station with its gaily-shining freight. I am not the only one in tears as it disappears into the darkness with a final long, mournful wail of the whistle.
This is the final commemorative event; now the party begins.

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