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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVIII
The distant ring echoed closer and was joined by an even nearer series of deeper toned whistles.
“What can that mean?” Lillian asked.
“Four blasts means something had happened at one of the mines.” Karina said. “The steel plant is using its whistle to spread the alarm.”
“So that’s how can we hear it here.”
“They relay a distress signal.” Clara explained.
“Can you really tell where it’s from?” Her heart was racing. She knew were it was from without being told.
“Not always.” Clara hesitated. “When it gets relayed here it means they need volunteers for the rescue crew.’
“It’s from Castleton Mines direction, isn’t it?” She pulled off the veil, grabbed her purse and headed to the stairs.
“We have a phone here.” Clara headed to the mangers office on the main floor. “I’ll call to see if I can find out more. It has to be serious to get these signals. There’s been an an accident.”
Clara raced down the stairs, Lillian following close after.
Several of the clerks were gathered at the door of the manager’s office. One was crying into a handkerchief.
The manager hung up his phone and came to the door.
“What is it?” Clara asked.
“There’s been a major cave-in at the Castleton colliery.” He said.
“Is anyone hurt?” One the clerks asked.
“They’re all dead. All dead.” The crying clerk said as she sank to the floor.
“We don’t know that.” Clara helped the clerk to her feet.
“There’s nothing more I can tell you.” The manager said. “I called as soon as I heard the first alarm bells. No one knew how serious it is.”
“We have to go.” Lillian grabbed Clara’s hand. “Steven is …” she could speak.
“Have you heard anything?” Clara asked their driver as they got into the car.
“Not too much ma’am.” he replied. “It was sudden like. Everything was inspected afore they went down. Twas lower level though. Some on first faces are already up.”
“God!” Lillian was afraid to breathe. “Let Steven be alright.”
Once the car arrived in North Sydney Lillian had it stop at the church.
“We all must light candles.” She said.
Clara and the driver followed her into the church. There were already several people in there doing the same thing. Votive candles flickered in the rack.
The priest came over to them.
“Miss McTavish.” He whispered.
“Father Dunlop.” She nodded to him. “Have you any news?”
“Nothing definite.” He said.
Lillian lit her candle, put into a spot on the votive rack and genuflected to the cross over the altar.
She stepped outside with Father Dunlop while Clara and their driver lit their candles.
“You must be very concerned about Steven.” The priest said to her. “He is a Godly man.”
“Thank you Father. If all turns out well we’ll continue our pre-marriage talks with you.”
“Certainly. If you don’t mind I would like to accompany you. With Father Patrick away I am the nearest priest. I have to get my last rights kit.”
When they got to the dock they were informed that only emergency vehicles and personnel were being allowed to cross to Castleton.
“We can take Father Dunlop only I’m afraid.” The deckhand in charge said.
“Dr. Drummond will be expecting me.” Lillian declared. “Us.” She added, nodding too Clara. “We have assisted him before.”
“Very well.” The deckhand reluctantly let them aboard.
The small boat was crowded with two ambulance vans and various rescue volunteers.
Lillian paced to the far end of the boat.
“Lillian that was very bold of you.” Clara stood beside her.“But I’m sure Steven will be okay. Lillian it is nothing. It has to be nothing.” Clara tired to calm her.
“No. It isn’t nothing.” Lillian exploded. “I can feel it. Don’t ask me how, but I can feel it.”
When they arrived at the colliery gate Lillian asked. “Where is Mr. O’Dowell? Has he been found yet?”
The General Manager came over to her and Clara.
“No he hasn’t. We don’t know when either Miss McTavish. Rest assured we’re doing everything we can to find him and the others.”
“I don’t care about the others.” Lillian saw all her hopes and dreams turning to dust before her eyes. “This can’t be happening. It can’t.”
“There. There.” Clara tried to calm her. “You must be strong.”
“I’m tired of being strong.” Lillian sank to a bench outside the infirmary.
“We’re doing everything we can. The first five levels have been cleared and all the men are safe.” The manager explained.
“What about the others?” she said.
“The cage has been jammed in the shaft. We can’t go lower till we are sure it’s safe to go down.”
“Cage?” Lillian didn’t understand.
“A sort of elevator that brings the men and coal up and down.” Clara said.
“Why don’t they pull it up.” Lillian said.
“The cable broke.” The manager said. “It had been tampered with.”
“What! Who would do such a thing.”
“Radicals, miss.” The manger dropped his voice. “There’s labour elements amongst the men who’d stop at nothing to …”
“To what! Kill each other in pursuit of some ideal even they don’t understand!”
“We are working at removing the cable now. We don’t want to send men down in case the cage can’t hold their weight.”
“Then I’ll go down.” she pushed him aside. “I’m not that heavy.”
“Now, Miss McTavish.” The manager restrained her.
“We have to let them look after this.” Clara said. “Everything will be okay.”
“Lillian!” Dr. Drummond came over to her. “I so glad you’ve come.”
“I had no choice. Steven is down there. somewhere. I have to be here when they bring him up.”
“Of course. The rescue is being hampered by the cage. They’ll have men cutting away the floor of the cage once they get the shaft clear. Much of it collapsed down with the cave in.”
“So there’s been no word from the lower levels?” Clara asked.
“There’s someone coming up.” a miner rushed over to tell the manager.
“I have to go ladies. Trust me we are doing everything we can.”
Lillian watched him run over the the mine entrance. A miner staggered out into the sunlight. His face was smeared with coal dust and blood. His shoulders were scraped raw and his hands were bloody pulps.
“It’s Birk Nelson!” someone shouted.
“Level seven.” someone else shouted. “He was down at level seven.”
Lillian held herself back as the rescue workers went to Birk. She stepped into his line of sight but his eyes were blinking as they adjusted to the sunlight. Someone handed him a cup of tea. She teared up as his bloody hand clung to the mug. He couldn’t seem to hold it tight enough, As he drank from it tea spilled over this chin and onto his shirt. Lillian followed as Dr. Drummond guided Birk to the dim wash house.
He had her fill a basin with hot water to soak Birk’s bleeding hands. The water quickly blackened. Birk shuddered and try to pull his hands out. One of the workers held his shoulder still while the doctor rinsed Birk’s fingers gently.
“More clean water Lillian.” The doctor said.
She brought another basin of hot water over. She had dipped a clean rag into the water and while the doctor worked on Birk’s hands she wiped off some of the dirt and blood from Birk’s face.
“Ah, Miss Lillian, it is you.” Birk blinked his eyes as he focused on her face. “I thought I was dreaming. I haven’t been practicing my handwriting as much as you wanted, I have to confess. Sal keeps reminding me. I have been studying them boiler books though. Sal is proud of her beans. They are growing higher than the house now. You must come over to see’m. Sal will be so happy if you do.”
“Yes, yes.” Lillian was confused, she knew that Sal had died a few months ago.
“He’s in shock.” Dr Drummond said quietly to her. “Let’s take him to the infirmary. Now that his hands are clean I can check how serious the damage it. Not enough light in here for that.”
He started to lead Birk out of the wash house when Birk began to sag to the ground. With the help of a couple of miners they laid him on a stretcher and brought him to the infirmary.
“There’s more down there. You have to get the, Red dropped like a shoe out of my hands. I couldn’t help him though.” Birk hands reached up trying to grab something out of the air.
“We’ll get them.” one of the stretcher bearers said as he gently helped Birk onto one of the tables in the infirmary.
“How many were with you?” Lillian asked Birk.
“Many?” Birk shook his head. “Can’t say as I recollect now. It was so fast. Me and me mate Clancy were talking when …” He shuddered. “Clancy took a real liking to you Miss. He was always going on about your … Clancy! He’ll be down there now. The staving collapsed right on him. I … I did what I could then I had to climb out of there.”
“Be still Birk.” Dr. Drummond ordered. “They are working at getting the rest of the men out of there.”
“Red just fell. I couldn’t do a thing. He was holding to me than he was gone. So fast. So fast. I heard his fall stop at the bottom of the shaft.”
“Was … was Mr. O’Dowell with you?”
“Oh, no, Miss he was keen on being where the the blast was. Below us. He’s a brave’un you know. You will be married soon. He told us all. Right proud he was of it too. Better for you than …. ouch …”
Birk shuddered as Dr. Drummond was pulling splinters out the palms of his hand.
“Keep talking with him Lillian. The distraction will help him with the pain.” Dr. Drummond nodded to her.
“Did you hear anything from below you?” Lillian asked.
“Can’t recall. Sal sure enjoyed you visiting us. Mag too but Sal especially. She wanted to grow up to be a proper lady like you, you know. She won’t now …” Birk teared up. “Her beans done so well. It was if she was still with us as they grew and grew.”
“I look forward to seeing them soon Birk.” She said.
“I think that’s the worse of it Birk.” Dr. Drummond said. He coated Birk’s hands with a milky ointment. “Wrap his hands with this gauze. I’ll check the other injured miners. His mother is waiting at the front gate. Once you’ve done that you can let her take him home.”
As night fell Lillian sat exhausted one of the benches.
“Ah here you are.” Clara handed her a mug of tea and sat next to her.
“Where have you been?” Lillian asked sipping the tea.
“Getting some of injured to their homes. Talking with wives. Talking with management too. The engineers are working on the cage itself. They’re afraid that removing it will cause the shaft below it to collapse.”
“How long can those men survive down there?” Lillian asked.
“That depends on how seriously they are injured.”
“We’ve managed to stabilize the cage.” The general manager came to explain to them. “It can’t be pulled up or down the way it is caught in the shaft but we have secured cables to it so that if it should come loose it won’t fall any further.”
“Thank God. So the rest of the miners can be brought up?” Clara asked.
“Yes. The top and the floor of the cage have been cut open wide enough so we drop a hoist down to the remaining levels to bring the rest of the men. It’ll be a slow process mind you as we can only bring them up a few at a time.”
“See, Lillian,” Clara said. “There’s hope. Let’s go to the …”
“I’m not going anywhere. I want to be here when they bring Steven up.”
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