An introductory passage for a biography of my father, Robert Risk Harvey (1914-1983) by Ruth Bonita Harvey
Ruth comes from a large and complex Australian family and is writing a memoire reflecting on her origins and a life well lived.
“Have you ever been in a disaster or a war?”, my eleven year old grandson asked me.
He sounded genuinely interested, but I know it’s part of a school project and he has a deadline looming. Clearly he wants the minimum information so that he can move onto the next question. But I hope to catch his attention.
“No”, I replied. “Not directly involved in a disaster, but my father, your great grandfather, was.”
“What happened? What did he do?”
“His job was to rescue people trapped underground when there was a disaster, like a fire. His job was to coordinate rescue efforts”.
“Really? Like the boys trapped in the cave in Thailand?” He was referring to the fact that eight of the twelve boys had, after fourteen days deep in an underground cave with no food, no covering, and no light, been retrieved intact as of this morning’s latest news item.
“No”, I reply. “This was in a deep deep mine shaft, 300 feet underground. In those days they had very poor equipment – just green and blue canaries in small cages to warn of the presence of dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide which could easily turn into a fire.
“Why did they use canaries?” he persisted, now caught up in the story.
“Well, when the canaries fell off their perches, the miners knew there was danger and they were supposed to take action”.
“What caused the fire?”
“Not sure. Possibly a cigarette? Thirty pit ponies who pulled the coal skips were trapped and died horrible deaths. Your great grandfather ordered them to be cut into pieces and moved to the surface to make room to help the men trapped ”. I never knew how many men died or whether my best friend’s father was one of them.
“When was this?”
“Sometime in the 1950s, when we were living in Lithgow”.
“How do you spell that?”
“L, i, t, h g, o, w. It’s a small coal mining town in Australia, west of Sydney.”
There was a pause. "Hey Nana! I just looked it up on Google. It was 1953 and it says only 21 ponies died.”
“Really? Does it say how the fire started? I asked.
“It says it was most likely a cigarette, so you were right! And it says here that when the fire was discovered, only mine deputies were under-ground. Was your dad one of them?”
He scarcely could draw breath. Nor could I.
“And further on, Nana, it says the miners worked three shifts a day to clear the mine of explosive and poisonous gases. They sealed off the fire with a heavy brick wall and installed electric fans to help clear the gases to protect the men who stayed underground for three days”.
Ah! That action would have come from my father.
I have waited more than 65 years to have this trauma clarified. I was stunned that it was my grandson who provided the necessary information. The magic of modern technolgy. But there was another question from my thoughtful grandson:
“What else did your father do”, he asked, “besides saving people in underground mines?”
A good question I thought. What did he do between disasters?
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