April 30, 2006, may not be a significant day for many, but for trapped miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell, it was the day rescuers heard them singing Kenny Rogers ‘The Gambler’.
From that moment, the ordeal was referred to as a rescue, rather than a body retrieval. Five days earlier, Beaconsfield Uniting Church minister Frances Seen was laying in bed when an earthquake, measuring 2.2 on the Richter scale, felt like it lifted her queen-size bed off the bedroom floor.
The earthquake caused a rockfall in the mine shaft, leaving three miners unaccounted for. In the early hours of April 26, the news that three miners were trapped in the Beaconsfield Mine was broadcast over her husband’s radio.
For the next 14 days Mrs Seen would spend more than 15 hours a day at the church providing support for hundreds of the community, while Mr Webb and Mr Russell were stuck in a cage no bigger than 1.5 metres-squared as the 14-day rescue took place.
What started as a simple message asking people to “pray for our miners” scrawled on butchers paper snowballed into the church becoming refuge for the community, often being busiest at night.
“That was when people were knocking off work and I think at night was when it hit people the most,” Mrs Seen said.
On April 27, Larry Knight’s body was found and the little hope the town had started to diminish.
“When Larry’s body was found, it was almost like ‘this is it, the other two boys are going to be found in similar circumstance’,” she said.
The next day, rescuers began blasting the rock in hope of finding the bodies of the two trapped.
“I kept telling Todd they were coming in for a body retrieval. He kept saying ‘nah mate, it’s a rescue’. I said ‘mate, they’re drilling holes, they’re going to blow the s**t out of us,” Mr Webb said. “In the end we ended up lying to each other to keep our spirits up.”
Rachel Webb, Brant’s wife, said she always knew her husband was alive.
“I saw the look on Jackie’s (Mr Knight’s wife) face that very first night, it looked like half her soul had been taken away, I think she knew. I thought ‘well I don’t feel like that, and I should’,” she said.
“When I found out they were alive I was relieved because I knew they would do a rescue. I knew they weren’t doing a rescue until then because they were using explosives.”
Mr Webb said there were times he doubted his survival.
“When you roll a car, you have all those thoughts about your family running through your head for like 20 seconds of a near death experience, we went through one and half million near death seconds. It took a toll,” he said.
“We kept track of time by the sound of the rescuer’s cars coming at 6am and leaving at 6pm. There were times we questioned if they’d be coming back.”
Above ground on April 30, Kaye Webb raced into the church around 8pm yelling “they’re alive”. By 9pm, the church was full of locals. On May 2, Mr Russell told rescuers he would be resigning, and jokingly asked for the copy of Saturday’s Examiner to be sent down so he could start looking for a new job.
“By day nine, I felt my back caving in because we were so cramped and I had six ruptured discs from compression and all my cartilage in my legs and hips was shattered too,” Mr Webb said.
“Then there was a bit more sorrow because we figured out Larry was dead. (The rescuers) couldn’t tell us though.
“The hardest thing we ever said was ‘don’t send anyone else in, we don’t want to be responsible for a death’.”
May 9 was the day of Larry Knight’s funeral. Mrs Seen described the day as ‘bittersweet’ because it was also the day the two men walked from the mine.
“When I grabbed Rachel (his wife), was my best memory, it was a pretty bad situation to get everyone together, but I was really happy they were all there,” Mr Webb said.
“But my favourite memory was when I thanked all the rescuers. You have to take your hat off to people who put their lives on the line to save other people,” Mr Webb said.
Mr Webb said he refused to be nominated for a courage award after the ordeal.
“I said ‘I’ll give you the names of some guys with courage … a lot of people busted their ass to get to get us out, to me, that is more courage than sitting in a hole waiting,” he said.
“That is why we call ourselves survivors not heroes. Our heroes are the rescuers, without them we don’t survive.
“The knock-on effect for Beaccy was massive, 40 odd families moved, there were a few divorces, one rescuer suicided and someone lost a finger.”
Former Mayor Barry Easther said the ordeal put Beaconsfield on the map.
“It was a traumatic time, but some good has come out of it … The Museum at Beaconsfield used to have around 16,000 visitors per year. Following the rockfall that increased to around 40,000 every year,” he said.