Heart still broken 30 years after fiance's death in one of Australia's worst mine disasters

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ABC News reports on the inquest of the Emu gold mine disaster of June 1989

The fiance of a 27-year-old man killed in one of Australia’s worst mining disasters said she is still heartbroken on the 30th anniversary of his death.

Key points:

  • Six men died after the Emu mine, 25km south-west of Leinster, flooded on June 13, 1989
  • It took six days to recover the bodies in the biggest loss of life at a WA mine since 1921
  • Department of Mines records show there have been 145 mine deaths in WA since 1989

Six men were killed at the Emu gold mine near Leinster, about 650 kilometres north-east of Perth on June 13, 1989 — the deadliest day at a Western Australian mine since 1921.

After two days of heavy rains, water overflowed from a nearby open pit and flooded into a 500-metre-long underground decline, trapping the men who were working to bring equipment to the surface.

At just 22, Kim Bikaunieks’ world was turned upside down in an instant after her fiance Darryl Sandford drowned, although it was six days before her worst fears were confirmed when the mining engineer’s body was recovered.

“He was a larrikin, he was beautiful, always happy, you could always have a joke … he used to love playing practical jokes on me,” Ms Bikaunieks said.

“I often think of him … the severity of the pain lessons over time, but the pain’s still there.”

Heroic rescue attempt in vain

The couple had got engaged three weeks prior and were scheduled to fly to Melbourne the day after the disaster to buy an engagement ring.

Ms Bikaunieks said she spoke to her fiance for the final time around midday on June 13, 1989.

“I remember Darryl called to let me know he may be staying overnight because of the rain,” she said.

“That was just before lunch and it would have been two or three hours later when it happened.”

Ms Bikaunieks found out about the accident from one of her fiance’s co-workers and others heard the news on the radio before police could notify the families.

Police and navy divers were brought in for a rescue attempt, along with pumps to remove the more than 1 million litres of water estimated to have flooded the mine.

Newspaper reports at the time showed police divers completed two dives into the muddy pit before abandoning the underwater search until the pit was pumped dry.

Six days for bodies to be recovered

The men’s bodies were recovered about 100 metres from the underground access portal.

Ms Bikaunieks said she never gave up hope her fiance would be found alive, but the reality sunk in once the body of mine manager Timothy Proctor was recovered.

“It was a blur to me … I didn’t believe it, I was in shock, it was so surreal,” she said.

“When Tim [Proctor] was found, he was the first one, I kind of knew then that there was no hope but I didn’t give up.

“I was hoping there was an air pocket that some of them may have found.

“I never gave up hope until they found his body — and when they did, I just went to pieces.

“I was a mess … it took me a few years to get over it.”

After the Emu mine disaster, Ms Bikaunieks said she got married for the “wrong reasons” and is now separated with a 25-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter.

“My son wanted to go into mining and I told him not to — I just wanted him alive,” she said.

“It was the fear of it.

“It’s reflected on another generation if you know what I mean.”

Memorial service to remember miners

According to historian Moya Sharp, the Emu disaster was the single biggest loss of life at a WA mine since December 6, 1921, when six men were killed at the Golden Horseshoe mine on Kalgoorlie’s famous Golden Mile.

In that accident, the cage fell to the bottom of the mine shaft.

Six men were also killed in one accident at Kalgoorlie’s Mt Charlotte gold mine on April 2, 1897 after a candle ignited some dynamite.

Nearly 1,500 miners have been killed in WA’s Goldfields since the 1890s gold rushes at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie.

According to the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, there have been 145 deaths on WA mine sites since 1989.

The Emu mine is still operating today under different owners and a new name, now known as the Agnew gold mine.

Workers at Agnew will hold a memorial service and minute’s silence at 2 o’clock this afternoon to commemorate the 30th anniversary.

‘Awesome’ power of flood waters

During the 1990 inquest into the Emu mine deaths, the ABC reported the testimony of trades assistant Daniel Bradshaw, who said the power of the water flooding into the pit took everyone by surprise.

“It was awesome … it went from 5 metres to 20–30 metres,” Mr Bradshaw said.

“It looked like Niagara Falls.”

It was revealed the mine manager Mr Proctor told Mr Bradshaw to get out of the pit and was driving underground in a four-wheel drive to warn the workers of the approaching flood when he became trapped.

“I thought we had a heap of time,” Mr Bradshaw said.

“I thought they’d come out no worries.”

Coroner Colin Roberts told the court: “It’s hoped we’ve learned some lessons from this so six people didn’t die in vain”.

Safety standards ‘improved’ since disaster

Director of mines safety Andrew Chaplyn said the Department of Mines reviewed health and safety legislation following the Emu mine disaster.

The State Government subsequently passed new laws in 1994 and 1995, including legislation requiring employers to provide and maintain a working environment that does not expose employees to hazards.

It required mine operators to submit a project management plan to the department at the start of mining operations, including an assessment of major risks associated with the mine and strategies to manage those risks.

Flooding, or inrush, was identified as one of the major risks a mine operator must assess in its project management plan.

Bill Biggs, who was Shire of Leonora president at the time and served as a juror during the coronial inquest, said safety standards have improved to the point it is unlikely to happen again.

“I think the mining industry has learnt a lot from it — I hope they have,” Mr Biggs said.

“I’m sure that there are far better precautions taken these days when it comes to dam walls, open pits and things like that.”

One of Mr Biggs’ lasting memories is manning the phone at the Leinster Police Station the night of the flooding.

“We had people ringing from all over Australia and the world trying to check on relatives because they had fathers or uncles working at the mine,” he said.

“While we knew who was there, we couldn’t release the names, so all we could do was try and be nice to people on the phone and if you were lucky say something like, ‘your dad’s alright because we just saw him an hour ago’.

“It was pretty terrible. People in the town were just devastated.”