Report on tunnel collapse

Photographs from Auckland Weekly News: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, ref AWNS-19070307-10-3 and AWNS-19070307-11-3

Article which appeared in Evening Post Saturday 23 Feb 1907

Three Men Killed -- Fatal Fall of Earth -- A Slip in Kilbirnie Tunnel -- Distressing Circumstances

While a night "shift", comprising three men and a ganger, was working in the Kilbirnie Tunnel yesterday, near the city end, the clay overhead slipped, and many tons of material came down. Three men, Harry Barrett (the ganger), Alfred Harrington, John Eli, were overwhelmed by the debris, and were killed. A fourth, Frederick Cocker, was also caught by the earth and was injured. He was extricated without great difficulty and was taken to the hospital. The other workers, Edward Lowe, Patrick Mooney, Charles Crew, Joseph Hurles, and Alexander McLaren, escaped unharmed.

News of the accident soon reached Mr A Maguire, contractor of the tunnel, and he at once went to the spot to give all the assistance that he could. Indeed, there was no dearth of willing hands - there were far more than could be used in the narrow space - and the resucers laboured hard all night and this morning clearing away the clay. Constable Williams was among this band, and plied a shovel for several hours. Mr Morton, City Engineer, was also on the scene.

The accident happened suddenly at about twenty minutes past ten. The men were preparing a "length" of timbering for the brickwork. It was practically the preparation for the last stage of the tunnel work, which was expected to be finished next week. The bricking has been done for a distance of 32ft at the city opening, then there was a gap of 36ft (three lengths) and then on, right out to the Kilbirnie side, the brick arching was completed. Before the bricks are put in, the tunnel is supported by heavy timbering - thick vertical "legs", surmounted by stout "sills" running across the top. When the men are preparing a "length" for bricking, some of the heavy timbering must be removed, to be replaced by ribs and lagging for the brick arch. It was while the men were engaged in this operation that the fall came. Apparently, a sill gave way under the pressure of the overlying earth, a leg slipped, and down came a mass of clay, which "telescoped" the woodwork. Harrington and Barrett were immediately below the point at which the face of the hill began to subside, and were covered up among the timber. Eli was more fortunate, but only for a little while. His body was covered up, but a truck used for carrying away the spoil, saved his head. He was lying on his back across the truck rails, with his head towards the Kilbirnie side. He was able to speak, but a second fall of earth about midnight covered him, and death soon ensued.

One of the men, McLaren, had a marvellous escape from death. He was working among the timber in the upper part of the tunnel, and suddenly he found himself whirled upward. He must have been just outside the edge along which the clay commenced to glide, and was thrust on top of the descending mass, and thus came down into the tunnel. He helped to extricate his mate, Cocker, who was soon able to make his way outwards to the Kilbirnie end, and come over the hill to Wellington.

The rescuers worked from both sides of the slip, but they were greatly hampered by the restricted space, which the half-submerged truck almost filled. At one time the earth was sufficiently cleared away to make Harrington visible. McLaren touched his fallen comrade's hand, and the shock, coming on top of his own startling experience, made him faint away. In the meantime, Eli was speaking, and his voice seemed strong. He was evidently in great pain, for he asked the rescuers to put him out of his misery. The treacherous earth itself did that at midnight. The sufferer was not heard to speak again after the last great slip. His body was recovered early this morning and taken to the morgue.

Last night, immediately after the accident, the top of the face was trimmed away to prevent any more material from slipping into the tunnel, and the clearing operations went forward with all possible speed, but between half-past ten and midnight the earth kept filling inside the tunnel as fast as the men could get it away, and the final fall brought down such a quantity of stuff that the removal was a work of hours.

Harry Barrett, who resided at 6 Adelaide Road, was a married man. His wife is in Goodwood, Australia.

Alfred Harrington (timber man), who had his home in Devon Street, was married just a year ago, and leaves a wife and baby. The "shift" in which he met his death was to have been his last on the tunnel. He commenced work at 4 o'clock in the afternoon with the others, and by midnight he would have bade farewell to the tunnel, for he had fresh work to go to on Monday.

John Eli (timber man), 23 Jessie Street, Te Aro, was single, twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of age. He came originally from the West Coast, and there he went to school with Constable Williams, who last night was labouring to save his old comrade.

This morning a shift of men shovelled vigorously on the city side, but it was not till half-past ten that Harrington's body was unearthed. The body was lying across the floor of the tunnel, with a heavy piece of timber across the stomach, and the right leg was drawn up to the body. Evidently, death could not have been long in coming. About half an hour later the body of Barrett was also brought out. They were so wedged among the timber that axes and saws had to be used to cut a passage through.

The slip occurred in a peculiar manner. The front bricking of the tunnel abuts the sloping face of a cutting. Seemingly, recent rain loosened the rotten rock of the formation, and the material lost its cohesiveness. It fell down vertically, leaving a jagged circular hole, about eighteen feet deep and twelve or fifteen feet in diameter, through which daylight entered the darkness. While the men were shovelling this morning, a man was stationed on the lip of the crater to give warning in case he noticed any movement in the ground above. Men who have been working in the tunnel say that the face of the city side is composed of very treacherous material. Slips have occurred previously, they state, not serious falls, but sufficient to block up the mouth of the tunnel.

Drs Walter, Gilmer and Kemp arrived during the night to render any assistance within their power. The inquest will be opened this afternoon.