Evening Post Monday 25 February 1907

The Kilbirnie Tunnel Fatality

An Enquiry Commenced

Tunnel examined by the Jury

An inquest in reference to the death of William Henry Barrett, Alfred Harrington and John Elie, who were killed in the Kilbirnie tunnel on Friday night, was commenced at the Morgue on Saturday afternoon by the District Coroner (Mr James Ashcroft) with a jury comprising Messrs. Frederick G Clarke, Henry A Stephens, Thomas Rogers, Alexander H Fraser, James G Poynter, and Frederick Cording (foreman).Inspector Ellison and Sub-Inspector O’Donovan represented the police. Mr Morton (City Engineer) was also present.

Alexander McLaren, a miner, who had been working in the tunnel on Friday night, stated that he had identified the bodies. He believed that the first two men, Harrington and Barrett, were killed outright by the first fall of earth. Elie was alive when witness left the scene at about 11:30 or 12 on Friday night.

Richard McLaren said he assisted to extricate Elie, who died at about 2 o’clock on Saturday morning. The body was taken out at about 6 o’clock.

Alfred Watson, a shift boss on the Kilbirnie contract, gave evidence that he knew Barrett (usually known as Harry), by his full name, William Henry. Barrett had stated that he had a wife and two children in Goodwood, South Australia.

Dr JH Kemp, who arrived at the tunnel after the accident, said he heard the voice of one man, who was partly under a truck. The men dug underneath the truck, and witness crawled under. That was at about 2:30am, and the man (Elie) was then dead. Witness had examined the three bodies in the Morgue. Elie had a large wound on the right side of the head. Witness believed that Elie’s death was due to haemorrhage and shock. Barrett and Harrington looked as if they had died from suffocation. Harrington also had some ribs broken.

Dr Gilmer said he had been called to the Pirie Street end of the tunnel shortly after 11 o’clock on Friday night. About 1 o’clock witness sent Cocker to the Hospital; this man apparently had no bones broken, but was suffering from shock. Witness concurred with Dr Kemp’s evidence regarding the causes of death. This evidence was taken to enable the Coroner to issue certificates for the interments, and then the enquiry was adjourned till 2:30 this afternoon.

It was decided to secure the services of an independent engineer for an examination of the scene of the accident. The jury also visited the spot at the close of the preliminary enquiry.

To-day’s Proceedings

The enquiry was resumed this afternoon. Mr O’Shea, City Solicitor, and Mr Morton, City Engineer, were present. Mr Martin watched the proceedings for Mr Maguire.

Internal Arrangements of the Tunnel

George Thomas Taplin, foreman of works on the Kilbirnie tunnel contract for Mr A Maguire, stated that he was fully acquainted with all the internal arrangements for protecting the men. He left the spot an hour and a half before the accident happened. The men were preparing a 12ft length to put the ribs up for the brickwork. They were taking the King post out when witness left. A sketch was drawn to show the position of the timbers next to the brickwork prior to the accident. Witness returned to the spot after he heard of the accident, and entered the tunnel. Between the two completely bricked parts of the brickwork, there was a length of 36 feet of arching to be done in brick. The timbers mentioned were taken out, with the exception of the sill, about an hour and a half before the accident. He saw the King-post rightly taken out. He did not see the other pieces of timber taken out, but believed they were taken out before the accident. It was necessary to take the timber out in order to put the ribs up, and he considered that the operation was done at the right time. The accident occurred before the ribs were up. There was no danger in taking the posts away and leaving the work in that stage for, say, half an hour.

(Left sitting)

Evening Post Tuesday 26 February 1907

The Kilbirnie Tunnel Fatality
Inquest on the Victims
The Cause of the Accident
Jury’s Verdict

After the Post went to press yesterday further evidence was heard in the enquiry concerning the Kilbirnie tunnel accident, in which W H Barrett, John Elie, and Alfred Harrington lost their lives. Edmund James Love, a timber-man, said that just before the accident he was standing on the north side wall of the brickwork at the Kilbirnie end. Everything was then ready for taking the sill out in the 12ft length. There was a lot of weight on the king-post when witness took it out; it had to be half cut through. That indicated that the ground was settling on to the timber. They had noticed the same thing for the last thirty feet from the Kilbirnie end. The other posts had been taken out. The men were just going to remove the sill when the accident happened. The first sign was the collapse of the bars at the city end of the Kilbirnie end. He thought that striking the king-post caused vibration, brought more weight upon a bar, and broke it. The timbering had always been done in the same way throughout, but had not been similarly tested. The bars that broke were seven to eight inches thick; a ten-inch bar did not break. There was also a collapse in the six-foot length when the second fall took place, at about midnight. The three men were all caught in the first fall. The immediate cause of the accident was the breaking of the bars. They were very small, but had been used all throughout the contract. It had struck him from the first that the bars were small, except the ten-inch one. They were smaller than the ones which he had seen in use in England. He had remarked in conversation with fellow-workers “These are small sticks” and they had replied: “They are what we have been used to”. To provide against a “greasy back” slipping he considered that the bars should be 12 to 18in thick. He had seen them used for sixteen years in the Old Country; they were larch. He thought the bars in the Kilbirnie tunnel were birch.

To Mr O’Shea: there were five bars in a length, and he saw three broken. Mr O’Shea mentioned that a sill had shifted towards the Kilbirnie end, and asked whether the timber would have moved in that way if it had been shored up. Witness answered that the sill had not been shored up in the way suggested. That was not the practice unless there was a “face weight”. He would expect that a slip would come towards town, but the earth actually slipped towards Kilbirnie. A bar broke at the point of support, on the north side of the tunnel.

To Mr O’Shea: Witness gave no orders.

Detective Kemp submitted a statement from Frederick Cocker, whose evidence mentioned that Love was giving directions. The accident was not caused by the carelessness of any of the men. Everything seemed to be in good order. He could not give any idea how the timber had collapsed.

The Contractor’s Views

A Maguire, contractor for the tunnel, said he generally visited the tunnel twice a day. Mr Taplin was in charge. Barrett was a shift boss appointed by Taplin. Witness ordered the timber, black birch, fresh out of the bush. The sills were fifteen inches in diameter, and the bars were eight to ten inches thick. No one had ever said to him that the timbers were not thick enough for their positions. He had used timber of similar size on previous works of a similar nature in New Zealand. Witness had no regular engineer; that was not usual. There was an inspector of works for the corporation; and this officer had not interfered with the mode in which the work was being carried on. Over 1200ft of the tunnel had been completed with similar appliances. He believed there was one breakage previously, not serious, and this was due to a shift boss disobeying orders, and he was dismissed. If the men had asked for stronger timber they would have got it. He would have got Oregon for them if they had asked for it. The bars were cut four or five months ago. The bars were used over and over again; he supposed they were used thirty or forty times in the tunnel. Any piece that appeared to be unsound was at once rejected. In one or two bad sections of the tunnel Oregon logs had been ordered, and these had been available for other portions of the work, but had not been asked for.

To Mr O’Shea: he considered that putting timber in was more dangerous than taking it out.

To Mr Martin: He had been in the tunnel twice on Friday, and could see nothing near the scene of the accident to indicate that there was any danger. He had taken upon himself the funeral expenses of the men, and there was an insurance on each besides.

The Coroner: “Are you of opinion that the breaking of the bars was the immediate cause of the accident?”
Witness: “It is a difficult question. They must have been removing the timber, and thrown a greater strain on it.”

The Inspector of Works

Ralph Lindsay, Inspector of Works for the Corporation, said he had experience with the Manawatu and Karori tunnels. If he saw the men at Kilbirnie using unsafe timber he would speak about it. He considered that the timbering was sufficient. He had once called the attention of Taplin and Maguire to the part where the fall had taken place, and told them he thought the timbers they were using would not be strong enough for that spot; he meant the bars. He did not suggest what size he considered they should be. That was about ten weeks ago. The ground was bad there; it had “greasy back” in it, and he told them that. He thought the spreaders had been taken out before other supports were put in, and this, in his opinion, was the cause of the fall. He considered Taplin was a competent boss. He would have advised them not to remove the spreaders without giving other support if he had been on the spot. The earth in this particular spot was all right, taking the timbers out the right way. He had met a good deal of “greasy back” further in. There was not as much at the place of the accident as there was further in. The spot where the accident happened was dangerous because there had been several slips down the face.

To Mr O’Shea: The sill could have been supported by struts as had been done at the inset at the other end.

To Mr Hay: The sills were right through the wall and into the earth from 6, 9, to 12 inches. Some did not go into the ground, but were packed up with wood. Mr Maguire had complied with every request he had made as to timbers.

In answer to Mr Martin, witness stated that the timber men were selected by Taplin. It was the place of the men to see that the spreader was taken out at the proper time. The system followed in the present instance was safe in good ground. Before leaving at 5 o’clock he gave no instructions to the foreman to be careful, save to put wedges under the sills. This was between 4 and 5 o’clock. If the wedges had been in as he had suggested he did not think the accident would have happened. All the men to whom he had said this were now dead.

To the Coroner: Night shifts had been the rule right through the working of the tunnel. There was no more danger working at night than in the day time.

Chas. Crew, trucker on the shift when the accident occurred, saw all the timber taken out, and considered the work was done right. In his opinion the accident occurred through the crown bar breaking.

Alexander McLaren (recalled) was with the timbermen when the timber was taken out, and considered the work had been done with every care. The immediate cause of the accident would be the earth above weighing on and snapping the crown bar. Some vibration caused in taking down the king post might loosen the earth, and the weight would come on the crown bar and break it. He could not see any precaution which could have been taken more than had been done.

Edward Love, recalled, deposed that the second sill was wedged with a “shack block”. The spreaders had been taken out about an hour before the accident. At this stage the inquest was adjourned until 7:30pm.

Expert Evidence

On resuming, the Coroner called Wm Hobbard Morton, City Engineer, who said he had control of the contract as far as the corporation was concerned. He frequently visited the tunnel, his last visit being three days previous to the accident. He had particularly noticed the timbering, and the clerk of works had informed him that he had got Mr Maguire to provide additional supports. He thought everything safe. The scantling was sufficient from the appearance of the work at the time, there being nothing at all to denote weakness. The total length of the tunnel was 1276 ft, and only about 36ft of arching had to be done, the side walls having been completed.

The 36ft had more dangerous features than the rest of the tunnel because of the formation of the ground to be passed through, and the fact that the entrance to a tunnel in a work of the class is most dangerous through slips coming down. As a matter of fact slips had come down here. Since the accident he had seen the tunnel, and heard the evidence. He could only theorise, but he inclined to the opinion expressed by the clerk of the works; that was to say that the support given to the transversed timbering and longitudinally with the tunnel had been removed. As to whether they had put in some sort of wedges to secure the second sill from slipping, he inclined to the belief that the man who said this had been done was mistaken.

Continuing, witness stated that he did not think the accident was due to the crown bar or any of the bars breaking. Had the bar broken it was probable it would have broken in the centre of the span. The fact that the collapse was almost entirely without warning was also evidence that it was due to some of the vertical supports carrying away. He did not consider the breaking of the timber showed it was not strong. The timber was sound, and appeared to have resisted considerable force. The trouble was caused by moving the spreaders securing the transverse timbering. It was possible that the end was wedged in and that the pressure was so great as to cause everything to slip out of position. The foreman being on the works at 7:30, he thought he should satisfy himself as to how the work was going to be carried out. He had no reason to think the contractor had not done everything possible, and knew of no case where any material was required where there had been any hesitation in providing it. To the Coroner: Instructions had been given as to hurrying on the contract, but not in such a way as to lead to neglect. The council had asked for more men to be employed, and this was the nature of the requests made.

To Mr O’Shea: Timber, in most cases, would give a warning when about to collapse under pressure. Breaking such as had occurred would be caused by a sudden weight on the timber. The ground in question was treacherous.

Mr McLaren (recalled): At the time of the accident Love was timberman, and Elie was watching the supports. Barrett was boss; and having given his instructions, was looking after things below. He understood Barrett had had considerable experience in timbering in different mines in Australia.

George Thomas Taplin, foreman (recalled) stated that he went on at 7:30 in the morning, and was on till 5:30pm, and came back again before 8 at night. The shift boss took his place when he was not there. He was often on the job at night. Barrett was for five or six years head shift boss of the timbering of a Broken Hill mine, and was a careful man, and quite competent to look after the work. When witness left the work at 9 o’clock, he gave the men clear instructions and told them to be careful. He considered the sills had been properly wedged. They could not see the “greasy back” coming.

Francis Chas. Hay, engineer of the Public Works Department, deposed that he had been on shingle tunnel works on the Midland railway. After seeing the scene of the accident it seemed to him that the method of excavating was rather risky, taking into account the heaviness of the ground and the fact they were nearing the mouth. In his opinion lining should have kept pace with the enlarging and the enlarging should not have been allowed to get ahead for any length without the bricks following. The method of taking sills off the walls was weak. It would be better to excavate into the side of the rock, and let the end of the sill into it on each side. This would have done away with spreaders and wedges. The timber seemed to be weak for the calss of ground. The crown bar shoulders should have been 12in in diameter, and the others should have been from 10 to 8 inches for that part of the tunnel. The timber used was sufficient for the solid part of the tunnel. The immediate cause of the accident, he thought, was that the spreaders had been taken away from two sills on the first length, thus allowing the set to buckle and move towards the Kilbirnie end. If the tunnel had collapsed by the bar breaking, the sill, in all probability, would have remained in its position.

The Coroner: do you consider it right to leave an operation of this kind to the sole control of an experienced shift boss in a night shift, and in the absence of the foreman?
Witness: A thoroughly experienced timber man might be left in charge for a shift. There would have to be supervision of some kind at intervals.

To Mr Martin: A tunnel should be started in solid ground with the same precaution as though it were a shingle tunnel. He had had no practical experience in a tunnel exactly the same as that at Kilbirnie.

W H Morton (recalled): Referred to Mr Hay a statement as to letting sills into the rock, this, he admitted, was done, but it was not the invariable practice. With minor sills it was not the usual practice. With regard to the nature of the excavation leading up to the tunnel, he saw the sides of it, and up to about the level of the shoulder bars, and there was nothing to give any idea of the treacherous nature of the ground. As to the crown bars being light, this had been drawn attention to, and intermediate sets had been placed in where necessary. Knowing what he knew of the ground now, he would say they were too light, but he was speaking after the event.

Summing up

Addressing the jury, the Coroner remarked that except for the evidence of Mr Hay it would seem that reasonable precautions had been taken. The greater part of the work of the tunnel had been successfully carried out by the use of the timbers in question, and there had been no reason to think them weak or deficient. If they took note of Mr Hay’s evidence, they might have something to say as to defects in the manner of carrying out the work. If satisfied, on the whole, that the death of the men was purely accidental, and the men themselves were responsible for that which seemed to have led up to it, they could say so. The men knew the timber, had accepted it, were responsible for taking out the struts, and knew the particular time they should take them out. It seemed to him that the unfortunate men were sharers with others in the responsibility of the work they undertook, and which had resulted so disastrously. No doubt the contractor was primarily responsible, and secondly the foreman. The boss of the shift was also responsible. It had only been suggested by one man that any blame was attachable to the foreman. He must leave the matter to the jury.

The Verdict

At 10:35 pm the jury brought in the following verdict: “That the men J Elie, Alfred Harrington, and W H Barrett were accidentally killed in the Kilbirnie tunnel by a fall of earth”. A rider was added: “That, in the opinion of the jury, there was not sufficient expert supervision exercised on the works during the night shifts.”

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