Ex-Bairns lead enquiry into mining disaster

Stewart Bell
Stewart Bell
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It was a tragedy that made headlines around the world.

On November 19, 2010 an explosion ripped through the Pike River coal mine in Greymouth, New Zealand.

A total of 31 men were working underground at the time. Two managed to walk from the mine with only minor injuries. But the remaining 29 were not so lucky.

Their deaths shocked the island nation in the south Pacific and the New Zealand government quickly established a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of the tragedy and make recommendations for improved mine safety.

Helping to lead this hugely important investigation are two men who both hail from Falkirk.

Stewart Bell and Gavin Taylor both immigrated with their families to Australia in the 1960s and now occupy senior positions in mine safety.

Stewart is Deputy Director-General Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health for the Australian state of Queensland. Last year he was seconded to New Zealand to work for the Royal Commission.

Joining him was Gavin, another adopted Queenslander, who is Chief Inspector of Coal Mines for the state.

The Falkirk Herald spoke to both men about the investigation and their memories of their home town.

Stewart (62) is originally from Bainsford and was a pupil at Falkirk High School.

He immigrated in 1965. After completing a degree in chemistry, he began a career researching fires in coal mines across the world.

Despite his extensive experience, he says the investigation into the New Zealand disaster is one of the difficult jobs he has ever undertaken.

“29 people died in this disaster, and Greymouth is a small town,” he said.

“Everyone in the town was touched by this event. The economic and social impacts are ongoing. Some families will never recover.”

Gavin (60) spent his formative years in Westquarter and was a pupil at Graeme High when he made the move to Australia.

There is a long history of mining in his family, who lived in and around Slamannan and were involved in the Free Colliers movement.

Gavin rose from a mining apprentice to chief inspector during a career that has taken him around the globe.

“It was a high honour to be requested to assist the New Zealanders, and says much for the reputation of Queensland as far as mining safety is concerned,” he said.

“Every person should have the inalienable right to go to work and expect to go home at the end of their work day safe and as healthy as they arrived.”

The Royal Commission is due to submit its final report on the disaster in September - an event that is eagerly awaited by the victim’s families.