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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Ils étaient 1099, morts pour le profit

by By Lénaïg Bredoux, special correspondent, Pas-de-Calais

Commemorating France’s Worst Mining Tragedy: 1099 Workers Perished to Profit the Bosses

Translated by Patrick Bolland

Translated Wednesday 15 March 2006, by Patrick Bolland

A People’s history: The mining catastrophe on the 10 March 1906 in northern France is remembered with a number of commemorative ceremonies.

[Translator’s introduction]

The “Courrières catastrophe”, in the cobweb of mineshafts below the villages mentioned in this article, was preceded by a lot of smoke and the detection of toxic gases in the mine in the days before the explosion. The company was warned by a union delegate, but refused to stop production: 1099 of the 1800 miners who were ordered to continue work despite the evident danger on 10 March 1906 died in the disaster. In contempt of the trapped miners, the company called off the rescue operation after only 3 days and walled up access to where the miners were trapped, in order to protect the remaining coal-faces from potential fire. On 30 March - 20 days after the fire started - 13 miners emerged through another tunnel to the light of day, without any outside help. Clearly many more lives would have been saved if the Company had not called off the rescue efforts prematurely and sealed off the shafts. A final survivor was found on 14 April, thanks to a group of volunteer German mine-safety workers, with no help from the company.


It’s still night, the air is damp. Anonymous figures huddle under their umbrellas. Opposite, the ex-miners line up in their work-clothes shoulder to shoulder at the mouth of the pit which they have reconstructed. From afar, you only see their lamps. Then, in the darkness, the sirens resonate. It’s 6.34 in the morning in the mining region. The sirens continue to resonate.

Just like exactly 100 years ago, when the sirens of Méricourt, Sallaumines, Billy-Montigny and Noyelles-sous-Lens in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France announced the terrible news: there was an underground explosion in the mine-shafts belonging to the Courrières Mining Company. In just a few minutes, a ball of fire destroyed everything in its path along 110 km of underground galleries. This was the greatest mining disaster Europe has ever known.

The blaring of the sirens dies down, then starts again, trembling oppressively. The miners approach, placing flowers on the ground. At Méricourt, Bernard puts it this way: “We have all been down into the entrails of the earth, and always with fear in our own stomachs”. Vittorio says: “This brings tears to the eyes ... [a long silence] ... All these people killed ... I’ve been down to the bottom of the pit, I know what it’s like”. Socialist town councillor Jean-Claude Lefebvre puts it this way: “It was here on the 4th of May, just south of Méricourt, it was the last pit my father ever entered. We can’t help being touched by this.” His voice is hesitant. The entry to the mine-shaft has long been closed, covered now by a highway round-about.

In all the towns and villages, homage is being paid to the victims of the catastrophe. At Noyelles-sous-Lens, nameless people each wear the badge of one of those who died. In Méricourt, 404 white balloons are released - the number of victims in the commune. They fly away rapidly in the gusts of wind “just like in the catastrophe, with the explosion”, an ex-miner says. Night falls heavily.

The 100th anniversary of what has become known as the “Courrières catastrophe” (1) that occurred on the 10th of March 1906 was commemorated in many different ways, reflecting a strong desire to keep alive the memory and the need to for people to give voice to their memories. Anthony, a high-school student, explains: “It’s important to remember that a lot of people died, that the tyrants didn’t give a damn about the lives of others”. His friend adds: “Our grand-parents were miners. They’re now dead.” Silence. Stephane, who’s now 29, tells us “It’s important ... I’ve seen films, I’ve heard the miners tell their stories. You have to honour the dead, you have to know what happened.”

But some politicans want to take us back to the profits-before-people times. Bernard Baude, communist mayor of Méricourt, told the people who joined together to commemorate the event: “Why are we here?” he asked. “The commemoration makes us ask questions about today ...” Marie-George Buffet, national secretary of the PCF added: “The catastrophe was no natural disaster. It was a crime, or rather 1099 crimes, committed by those who possessed the wealth and the power”. She accused the company management of turning a blind eye to the warning of the miners’ union delegates, particularly Pierre Simon (who went by the name of ‘Ricq’) and who called on the workers not to go down into the mine that day, because of the danger signs. She concluded “The Right and the bosses want to go back to the time when this happened in the mine”.

Among those present for this commemoration were Bernard Thibaut, secretary-general of the CGT union federation, Daniel Percheron, president of Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, Jean-Pierre Kucheida, president of the association communes in the mining area and François Hollande, current leader of the Socialist Party, who was at Fouquières-lès-Lens...

[Translator’s introduction]

The “Courrières catastrophe”, in the cobweb of mineshafts below the villages mentioned in this article, was preceded by a lot of smoke and the detection of toxic gases in the mine in the days before the explosion. The company was warned by a union delegate, but refused to stop production: 1099 of the 1800 miners who were ordered to continue work despite the evident danger on 10 March 1906 died in the disaster. In contempt of the trapped miners, the company called off the rescue operation after only 3 days and walled up access to where the miners were trapped, in order to protect the remaining coal-faces from potential fire. On 30 March - 20 days after the fire started - 13 miners emerged through another tunnel to the light of day, without any outside help. Clearly many more lives would have been saved if the Company had not called off the rescue efforts prematurely and sealed off the shafts. A final survivor was found on 14 April, thanks to a group of volunteer German mine-safety workers, with no help from the company.


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