‘Not forgotten’: Miner’s tragic final moments

BALLARAT, AUSTRALIA. NCA NewsWire Photos- MARCH 13, 2024, 2 men trapped at Ballarat Gold Mine in Mt Pleasant., Emergency services gather at the scene., Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Ian Wilson
BA man has been trapped for more than 13 hours after a mine collapse in Mount Clear. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Ian Wilson

The tragic final moments before a sudden mine collapse that killed one worker and left another injured in Victoria have been revealed, as friends and family began paying tribute to the man who died.

Emergency services were called to an operational mining site on Woolshed Gully Drive in Mount Clear about 4.50pm on Wednesday after reports of a rockfall.

Two people were pinned by fallen rocks, while 29 workers took refuge in a safety pod and were later brought to safety.

The body of Bruthen man Kurt Hourigan, 37, has since been recovered after he became trapped 500m underground and 3km from the mine’s entrance.

A second man, a 21-year-old from Ballarat, was flown to hospital where he remains in a critical condition.

Ballarat mine victim Kurt Hourigan. Picture: Facebook
Ballarat mine victim Kurt Hourigan. Picture: Facebook

Loved ones described Mr Hourigan, who was a father, as someone many “looked up to”.

“I still can’t believe you are gone. I have always looked up to you,” Reece Hourigan wrote on social media.

“Thank you for all the good and bad memories we have shared together. I love you so much, brother.”

Stephanie Coleiro said he would “never, ever be forgotten”.

“Our brother, our best mate, our son Kurt. We are so broken here without you,” she wrote.

“I still don’t feel it’s real ... I’m still waiting for you to walk in and say it’s just a dumb joke, I’m hungry.

“You were the best mate I could ask for. All the good and dumb advice. The cuddles when I’m balling my eyes out or just for sitting with me and having a stubby on the couch.

“Our kids loved you so much, as you loved them ... my kids will know there uncle Kurt. Love you and miss you so much, mate.”

Steve Hollis wrote: “The best mate anyone could ask for, you could never be replaced and ill miss you every day.”

Loved ones described Mr Hourigan as someone many looked up to. Picture: Facebook
Loved ones described Mr Hourigan as someone many looked up to. Picture: Facebook

Meanwhile, Australian Workers’ Union Victorian state secretary Ronnie Hayden claimed on Thursday that the two men had been “air legging” under unsupported ground when the collapse occurred.

Mr Hayden said the manual style of mining should only be used to investigate the ground and involved a drill with air and water moving through it.

“They should not have been doing that task in that mine,” he said.

“Say in tunnelling, for example, they’d use (air legging) to put anchors into the rocks to hold the rocks back.

“They were actually using it to create a tunnel to work into to chase the gold.

“We are going to be pushing very hard to make sure that the industrial manslaughter laws are used.”

Mr Hayden said the man’s death was “absolutely devastating”, especially because it could have been avoided.

Ballarat Mine Collapse
AWU state secretary Ronnie Hayden says the man’s death could have been avoided. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw

The mine’s owner Victory Minerals said in a statement that safety on-site was the first priority.

“This tragic incident is now being independently investigated by WorkSafe Victoria,” the statement read.

“Given this, it’s not appropriate for us to comment further right now, other than to confirm we are co-operating fully with this investigation, and undertaking our own.”

The company confirmed “no safety professionals working underground in the mine were made redundant in the recent restructure”.

“In fact, we increased safety professional resources within the underground. The roles and responsibilities of the redundant corporate managerial role were transferred to the Health, Safety, Environment and Community Manager, who reports directly to the CEO.”

WorkSafe Victoria said on Thursday it would be investigating the incident, which marked the 10th confirmed workplace death this year.

Health and Safety Executive Director Narelle Beer said inspectors had been on-site since last night investigating the “tragic set of circumstances”.

“It will be a complex, detailed investigation. We’ll take some time. We’re very keen to understand how we can ensure that a tragedy like this never occurs again,” she said.

“As part of this investigation we’ll absolutely be looking into what’s occurred in the past and if there’s anything that could have predicted this or prevented this occurring.”

Worksafe Victoria Health and Safety Executive Director Narelle Beer . Picture: ABC
WorkSafe Victoria Health and Safety Executive Director Narelle Beer. Picture: ABC

She later added: “If as a result of that, there is a prosecution that will follow, that matter will be prosecuted accordingly.”

Ms Beer could not confirm reports the site’s safety manager was made redundant and not replaced before the incident.

Acting Inspector Lisa McDougall confirmed earlier that a body was located at 5.20am.

“This morning tragically the remaining patient that rescue teams were working to access was located deceased,” she said.

It is understood a coroner’s van left the site about 9am.

The site has been closed down for investigators.

“We will be conducting an investigation on behalf of the coroner and we will be working with WorkSafe Victoria to conduct that investigation.”

Mr Hayden earlier claimed on the Today show that the man had died last night; however, Inspector McDougall did not confirm this and said Ambulance Victoria are required to assess patients before declaring their health status.

“They had to be assessed by an Ambulance Victoria representative and the scene was needed to be made safe before that they were able to access that patient safely,” she said.

Inspector McDougall said the owner of the mine, Victory Minerals, have co-operated with police and other partner agencies throughout the operation.

BALLARAT, AUSTRALIA. NCA NewsWire Photos- MARCH 13, 2024, 2 men trapped at Ballarat Gold Mine in Mt Pleasant., Emergency services gather at the scene., Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Ian Wilson
A man has died after a mine collapsed in Mount Clear. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Ian Wilson
Assignment Freelance Picture gold mine
Police at the scene of the mine on Thursday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Ian Wilson

Mr Hayden also claimed the miners were “allegedly working under unsupported ground when (the mine) collapsed”.

“Our members are angry, the workers are angry, I’m angry, our organisers are angry. This could have been avoided,” he claimed on the Today show.

“We’re devastated.”

Victory Minerals put out a statement Thursday morning confirming the man’s body was brought to the surface.

“Our deepest sympathies and thoughts are with his family and all our people right now,” the company said.

“Our absolute priority is supporting the wellbeing of our team members and their families and loved ones, as we all come to terms with this tragic news.”

Assignment Freelance Picture Mine
A 21-year-old man remains in critical condition after he was freed from the mine Wednesday. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Ian Wilson

An earlier statement from the company prior to the confirmed death said safety was their top priority.

“Right now our priority is the safety and wellbeing of our mining workers and their families. We would like to assure the community we are working as quickly and as safely as we can to help bring this worker to the surface,” the statement said.

“As the new owner, Victory Minerals took operational control of the Ballarat Goldmine on 19 December 2023. We bring significant experience and expertise to the mine.

“We are a safety first mine operator and respect the work that underground miners perform every day.”

It comes as a 21-year-old Ballarat man fights for life in hospital after being flown to the Alfred Hospital for treatment.

“The 21-year-old Ballarat man was treated for lower body injuries and flown to hospital in a serious condition,” police said.

Ballarat Mine Collapse
Mr Hayden said workers were angry. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw
BALLARAT, AUSTRALIA. NCA NewsWire Photos- MARCH 13, 2024 2 men trapped at Ballarat Gold Mine in Mt Pleasant. Emergency services gather at the scene. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Ian Wilson
An expert has described the rescue of the man as “like microsurgery”. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Ian Wilson

Bill Shorten said his old union, the Australian Workers Union, has been present since Wednesday afternoon.

“I’ve spoken to the secretary of the union, Ronnie Hayden, who’s in Ballarat as we speak … the men are shocked. They’re grieving, the Union is reaching out to them and will no doubt be talking to them further in coming days,” he said on the Today Show on Thursday.

“I understand there’s a meeting with WorkSafe officials in the coming next couple of hours.”

He added Thursday’s focus is on the welfare of those involved.

“I think the big priority today is the psychology of the survivors and the rescuers attempts to get to the final missing man,” he said.

“I know that the AWU will be incredibly diligent … I think for the purposes of today, the focus has to be on the rescue of the missing of the missing workmate, there will no doubt be, all sorts of investigations.”

The incident has made Mr Shorten reflect on his time as AWU secretary during the 2006 Beaconsfield mine collapse.

“Some of the authorities wanted to assume that the missing miners were dead. And I remember these gritty underground miners are saying until we can find the bodies, it’s a rescue, not a recovery.”