What happened on August 8, 1956 in Belgium? Many people, including a large number of migrants died because of a tragical disaster that occurred in the mines of Marcinelle, Belgium, where a lot of foreign immigrants went to work in those years. Most of them were Italians, escaping from the country that was not giving them a lot of job opportunities. They chose Belgium because it sounded like a good place where to make money to bring back home to Italy. Many of them in fact, didn’t move permanently. They worked there to earn more money to help their families back in their hometowns. 262 people died in the disaster, many were missing and only a few survived. But what really happened on that day?
First of all, why many foreign people were working in Marcinelle?
The Belgian industry was scarsely affected by the destructive effects of WW2; still Belgium, country of a quite small size, had very few workers available. This did increase the demand of manpower in Belgium, especially for what it concerned working in mines. In 1946 Italy and Belgium signed the Italian-Belgian Protocol, that involved sending 50,000 Italian workers to Belgium in exchange of coal.
This led to large migration flows from many parts of Europe, one of which, perhaps the most important was that of the Italians going to work in Belgian coal mines. Just think that in 1956, among 142,000 miners employed, 63,000 were foreign and among these 44,000 were Italians.
The well no.1 was in operation since 1830. It is not correct to affirm that it didn’t follow the most basic safety standards, but certainly, its maintenance was reduced to the minimum necessary. Among its functions, this well was used as an imput channel for air.
The well no. 2 instead operated as an output channel for air. The no. 3, which was under construction, had tunnels connected with the first two wells, although they were closed for various valid reasons.
The elevators, two for each well, were driven by powerful engines which were placed outside. At the top, on large metal towers there were two huge wheels which supported and guided the elevator cables.
Most of the structures were made of wood. The reason was mainly the tradition, but also the fact that, to such a depth, the elevator cable could oscillate in a way that it would run on the crossbars. So, to avoid a premature wear of the cable, the preference was given to woonden structures.
Aeration was provided by large fans which were placed outside and had to aspire the exhaust air through the well no. 2.
On August 8th, at 8am there was an agreement between the surface supervisor and one of the miners who was in service at the 975m level, after his colleague left the workplace to look for other full carts of coal. This agreement, which was provided by the protocol of work and later considered fatal, wanted the elevator to be empty for two trips. This means, the elevator could operate without the green light from the floor 975m and that the 975m could not load the elevator those two times.
In the meanwhile, the miner who left to look for loaded carts came back and calls the elevator, without knowing anything about the agreement between his colleague and the surface supervisor. There are different versions about this though, the miner said he asked his colleague and he said he could load it, but the colleague died in the disaster so no one could prove him right. The surface supervisor said he was absent and could not authorize anyone to use the elevator. So the elevator gets to level 975m and the miner begins to load it, unaware or careless that that elevator was banned for that level for two trips. The operation fails: the system that secures the carts during the elevator’s comeback jams. The system would have to stop for a short while to let the empty cart get out of the elevator, but it doesn’t happen; and both empty and loaded carts are protruding from the elevator. The miner thought it was not a dangerous situation because he was certain that the elevator could not leave the level without his signals. But he doesn’t know about the agreement and the fact that the surface supervisor ignores this situation, since the elevator should not have been there, according to the protocol of the “free” elevator which was going to start again after it emptied the level 765m.
The surface supervisor, having finished emptying the other elevator on surface, operated the start button which inevitably lead to the start of the lift which was blocked on the 975m level.
The elevator started moving up abruptly, and, with the two protruding carts, slams into a girder of the sending system. This girder then sheared a oil conduct, the telephone wires and two electricity cables, in addition to a compressed air supply: all these events together caused a massive fire. Since this happened in the air input well, the smoke soon reached every corner of the mine, causing the deaths of the miners, who ended up being trapped there. The fire though, was limited to the two wells and surroundings, but blocked every access to and from the mine in the first crucial hours.
The fire did not go down under the 975m level, but it burned up to the 715m level.
A few minutes after the alarm was given, 6 surviving miners came to surface, while others went down to inspect the area, unaware of the danger, after they closed the air conduct which was blocking the emergency brake. Some inspectors went down without any equipment, and after reaching the 835m level they had to give up because of the smoke.
The first rescue team arrived on site 10 minutes after the call, and around 30 minutes after the fire started. They went down the mine to look for other survivors, but couldn’t reach them because of the malfunction of the elevator, which stopped few meters above the level of output. In the meanwhile, the flames reached the last access to 975m level, located between the two wells. The air extraction well was out of order, as it was reached by the fire and this caused the disruption of the wires of the elevators. Two people tried to make their way through a side tunnel communicating with the well no. 3, the one which was still in construction. The attempt failed. They could reach the well almost five hours later to discover numerous corpses.
In the afternoon, after various attempts to reach the different levels of the well no. 1, and after activating the ventilation again, they found three other survivors, while others were found later by another expedition.
On August 22nd, they declared that all the bodies left in the mine were dead.
262 men lost their life, and only 13 miners survived. The dead miners were of 12 different nationalities, but the majority were Italians (136) and Belgians (95).
At the end of the month a commission of inquiry was created, together with other two investigation, to inquire on what really caused the disaster. None of these three institutions fully maintained its promises. After many sessions, the commission adopted a inquiry report which was published a year after. This report can show that the members of the commission weren’t agreeing on everything. There was a small clause which stated that every group of members was authorized to add a minority note. Four groups did that and among these, the Italian members emphasized that the persistence of the ventilation was the cause of the high number of victims, and not what caused the fire. In other words, the people in charge of that task, had to interrupt the ventilation system right after they knew about the fire into the well.
Through these notes, it is understood that every group tried their best to give precedence to their point of view (or the interests that the group intended to advocate), rather than the truth about what happened.
The investigation was considered strange. The coroner wasn’t authorized to speak in front of the commission, while various documents of the lawsuit were forwarded to the commission. Among these, there were some photos, but also a seized document which was published before the lawsuit.
The first trial took place in 1959 and lasted 5 months. The 5 defendants were all assolved, since the debates soon became a battle of expertise where the Court hardly understood what was going on. In appeal, an engineer was sentenced to 6 months and a fine, and the company Bois du Cazier was sentenced to pay part of the expenses, as well as a refund to the heirs of the victims which were not employed by them.
They made an appeal in the Court of Cassation, but the cause was postponed. In 1964 there was an agreement between the parties which led to the end of the case.
The result of the coal producers confederation is unknown.
Many migrants who went to Belgium to seek for a better life or some more money to bring home and raise their children died in this disaster, which was considered a human mistake, since there was barely no communication among colleagues which led to the massive fire and the malfunctioning of the system.
Here is a video, published by the Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera” in August, on the 57th anniversary of the disaster. http://video.corriere.it/marcinelle-italians-belgians-or-europeans/747f1e16-ff8f-11e2-a99f-83b0f6990348.
A man describes his life in Belgium and what happened during that sad day, and many other people tell their story about migrating to a new country from Italy, what they found, what difficulties they had to face and how is their life now.