18 Sep The Story of Darren Flanagan and the Beaconsfield Rescue
It was late on a Sunday night when I received a phone call that would change my life forever.
Many of you might remember that it was Anzac Day 2006 when the devastating news broke. It was so heart breaking that even the rest of the world were affected.
A major mine collapse in Beaconsfield, Tasmania. After five days of search and rescue, Larry Knight was discovered dead and two miners were found trapped nearly a kilometre underground. Amazingly, Todd Russell and Brant Webb had survived after hundreds of tonnes of rock fell, and crumpled onto the metal cage that they were working in.
The Beaconsfield mine rescue is one of the biggest and most dramatic mine rescues in the history of Australia. I can clearly remember the night I was sitting at home watching this news unfold when that phone call came from the mine.
I am considered an explosive expert and the Beaconsfield mine rescue team wanted my help.
I was picked up from Nowra in a private Lear Jet right at midnight and was taken directly to the Beaconsfield mine in Tasmania.
For an entire week after my arrival, I was test blasting on the 630m level to attempt something that had never been tried before anywhere in the world. I was refining an explosive charge that would tunnel through the rock to get the rescue team as close as humanly possible to the men without killing them.
Firing that very first shot was the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. I was terrified and so were the trapped men. The rescue team had exhausted every possible method to reach the men without success so blasting was the only option left.
Crawling over razor sharp rocks in the tunnel was painful enough but letting off explosions so close to the two men and the uncertainty of death was taking its toll. As I blasted myself closer and closer to the boys, the more pressure I carried on my shoulders, knowing that if I failed I would spend the rest of my life with the entire world saying, ‘That’s the guy who killed those miners’.
I used specialist explosives and while those were designed to lessen the impact on costly infrastructure, they were never meant to be used near human beings. Each explosion had got me closer and closer to their bodies and the higher risk became. But Todd and Brant kept pushing me to continue, they could smell freedom.
Speaking over the phone, Todd and Brant would continuously encourage me, they knew after 14 days trapped that this was the only chance they had. We would count down together 3-2- 1-fire to brace ourselves for the effects of the explosions.
Soaked to the bone from cold water and with wounded knees, I spent 29 hours of non-stop blasting until I finally managed to blast the rescue team to within 300mm of their bodies, this allowed the rescue team to reach Todd and Brant and complete that unbelievable rescue. I fired a total of 65 explosions and the last shot left me in tears. Amazingly, we had made it.
It was the longest 29 hours of my whole life, leaving me physically and emotionally drained. Although I had spent countless times beneath the earth’s surface, I had never worked in a 14m long tunnel that was only 1m in diameter and 1km underground. I’m also a little claustrophobic so I had to fight my own demons to keep me going. Todd’s words will never leave me, ‘Please don’t leave us here mate, you must promise us that you will stay until this is finished’.
I was just a very ordinary family man but that night turned my life upside down. I discovered courage and an ability to handle stress that I never knew I had. Because of that event, I now realise how an ordinary man like myself can hold onto an unwavering spirit and perform under extreme pressure when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
I don’t want anyone to think that I am trying to compare what we did to war, but I do believe that I now know why Australian and New Zealand soldiers are considered so special all around the world. I do believe that I now understand what would make a soldier dive out of a trench and onto the battlefield to drag another soldier back to safety knowing that he would be shot at the whole time he did it because I have now been a part of that comradery where nothing else matters but fighting to save your mates. I got myself involved in a long, complex and life-threatening affair and in the process learned the traits of human endurance, resilience, courage and mateship.
My story is emotive, dramatic and extraordinary. It’s something that will take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions and captivate your senses.
Along with that, I’ll take you to the issues of mental health. Many people don’t know that nine big tough miners suffered from mental health issues after the Beaconsfield mine rescue, and I was no exception.
Those guys and I struggled and hid our problems from the world because we believed that men like us shouldn’t have mental health problems. We were husbands and fathers and we felt that we were supposed to be able to solve anything that came our way. The problem was, we were fighting a battle that we were all were losing. It was only after I found out that a lot of the other men had needed help that I admitted to myself and my family that I was hiding something from them and that I needed help.
My message to people is that you don’t have to be involved in a rescue or a war to have depression and other mental health issues. A failing marriage, a job loss or the death of a loved one can all be life changing experiences.
My presentation is not merely about the amazing teamwork and the depth of human endurance that Australia witnessed at the Beaconsfield mine rescue. The story will also help to give men the courage to come forward and seek help.
CLICK HERE to buy your ticket to the NSW Regional Safety Conference & Expo and get the chance to listen to Darren’s story for yourself.