Fife pays tribute to victims of 1967 East Wemyss colliery disaster

One of the mine rescue teams which rushed to assist after the Michael Colliery disaster at East Wemyss in Fife on 9 September, 1967.
Photograph: D C Thomson & Co
One of the mine rescue teams which rushed to assist after the Michael Colliery disaster at East Wemyss in Fife on 9 September, 1967. Photograph: D C Thomson & Co
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Fife residents and politicians have marked the 50th anniversary of a Scottish colliery tragedy which killed nine men and caused economic devastation.

The Michael Colliery disaster at East Wemyss in Fife on 9 September, 1967 occurred during the night shift at around 2.30am when a fire started underground, leaving nearly 300 miners trying to fight their way out through dense fumes, smoke and toxic gas.

Rescue teams from pits across Scotland rushed to the scene to assist.

Six bodies were recovered. Rescue efforts continued in deteriorating conditions to locate a further three more missing men but to no avail. Their bodies remain underground.

David Hunter, a shot firer, received the George Medal for his bravery during the rescue operation, William Shaw, leader of the Michael Colliery’s rescue team, was given a Queen’s commendation, while Andrew Taylor was awarded the Edward Medal as a posthumous award.

Following the disaster, the colliery, which employed more than 2,000 miners, was sealed up and later shut down by the National Coal Board.

Yesterday the men who died were remembered in a moving ceremony at the memorial stone in East Wemyss which included a local brass band playing the miners’ hymn Gresford, prayers by the Rev Wilma Cairns of Buckhaven and Wemyss parish church, and a one-minute silence.

Paper sculptures of yellow canaries – birds formerly used to warn of carbon monoxide in pits – were made by pupils at Levenmouth Academy and hung on a tree behind the memorial. Retired art teacher Sandy Turner presented varnished sea coal to almost 150 relatives and friends of those who died.

Jim Leishman, provost of Fife Council, who spoke at the ceremony attended by around 400 people, said the disaster had an impact all over Fife. “We are paying tribute to the six men who died and those whose bodies were never recovered.

“Their families talk about them often, and we cannot imagine the pain of being unable to give their loved ones a proper burial.

“There are people who were teenagers who remember miners gathering outside the paper shop getting ready to go down and help.

“Nowadays there is the modern technology equipment, but what those men had in abundance was bravery.”

Duncan Gilfillan, 79, committee chair at the Fife Mining Heritage Preservation Society and a retired mining surveyor, said: “I was in the car around lunchtime when mine rescue vans went past, horn blaring and lights on.

“I don’t think the memories will ever die out for people here.”

John Kane, 79, former miner and guide at the National Mining Museum Scotland in Newtongrange, said: “The disaster was all the talk of the mine here, but it didn’t unnerve anyone or stop them going down.

“When you worked down the mines there was such an atmosphere and feeling among the men which nothing could ever break.”