ANDREW McDickens remembers thinking: there’s no way out of this. He knew the layout of the mine and, as soon as he saw the pile of peat and sludge that had collapsed into the shaft and was heading towards him and his mates, he realised all the exits were sealed off. He was 22 years old.

And then: hope. Against the odds, despite tons of earth crashing in from above and taking everything with it, a solitary phone line to the surface survived. It wasn’t strong – you could barely hear the men at the other end – and it could have gone dead at any minute. But at least it meant Andrew and the 115 other men he was trapped with could keep in touch with the surface.

Andrew was still doubtful though. He knew all the exits from the Knockshinnoch mine were blocked; he also knew that the disused mine that ran close by would be full of gas and impassable. The chamber the men were sheltering in was filling with gas too. Eventually, they had to lie down to avoid the poison above their heads. He was not hopeful of getting out alive.

Seventy years on from the disaster, in the Ayrshire village of New Cumnock on September 7th, 1950, it’s the phone calls to the surface on that shaky line that Andrew McDickens remembers most. “If the phone hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. Other memories stand out too: the moment the message boy ran down and told them something was wrong; the engine and coal trucks being pushed over by the sludge like they were toys; some of the men singing hymns in the dark. It’s all still vivid and clear for Andrew McDickens.

Mr McDickens, 93 years old, still lives in the village, just a few miles up the road from the old Knockshinnoch mine, and on Sunday September 6, he will be the guest of honour at a memorial service at the cairn that marks the spot where the collapse happened. He is the last survivor. The 13 men who were working closest to the in-rush died; another 116 men, including Mr McDickens, survived and how they escaped the disaster is the story of the greatest rescue in the history of Scottish mining.

The disaster happened because of the rain. Knockshinnoch was generally considered a safe and modern operation but it had been raining solidly for six days and the moss and peat above the mine was sodden; at the point where the collapse happened, the mine had also been worked very close to the surface – about 40ft. The National Union of Mineworkers told the inquiry afterwards that the managers of Knockshinnoch should have seen it coming. It came on the evening of September 7.

Andrew McDickens was working in one of the shafts and at first had no idea anything was wrong. “It was a big high place we were working in, about 7 or 8ft high,” he says. “A lad came running down and said – I always remember it to this day – ‘everybody is to drop everything and make for the pit bottom’.” Andrew put down his tools and went to investigate and there it was: the field above them had collapsed and tons of sludge was blocking the way out.

“To give you an idea of the strength of the stuff,” he says, “there were between 30 and 40 tubs full of coal plus a 16-ton engine taking the coal away and all these tubs of coal were being pushed out of the way by the weight of the sludge coming down. The engine was up on its side. It was off the rails altogether. We could see the stuff coming towards us. There was no exit.”

Up on the surface, the news of the disaster was spreading. Ian McLatchie, who was 13 at the time, remembers hearing sirens and bells and when he went to investigate, he could see a crowd starting to gather at the pithead. Elsewhere in the village, Sheena Daubney was told about the fall-in by the local grocer and she’ll never forget the shock of the news. Her brother Robert worked in Knockshinnoch. He was down there.

“The first thing I did was run to my relatives, aunts and uncles, up and down the road, to let them know it had happened,” says Sheena Daubney, who’s 85 now. “And then it was just … wait, wait, wait. I went up to the mine with my sisters. It was bedlam when we got there. There were hundreds of people. We were all wondering if Robert was coming back. It was horrible.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but Robert was with Andrew McDickens and 114 other men, gathered round the phone line waiting for news. It was a mixed group: the youngest was 18, the oldest in his 60s, and they grouped together in the dark and tried to keep each other’s spirits up. Some of them sang the Old Rugged Cross: I'll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down.

The man in charge of the group was oversman Andrew Houston and, in conjunction with the rescue teams over the fading phone line, a plan started to emerge. There was no way out through Knockshinnoch’s exits – they were filled with tons of sludge – but the disused Bank No6 mine nearby offered hope. The problem, as Andrew McDickens knew, was that Bank No6 had been disused for years and was full of deadly gas – if the men tried to get out that way, they’d be dead in seconds. “I knew about the gas,” says Mr McDickens, “and I wasn’t hopeful of getting out.”

The answer was for the trapped men to dig through the barrier of coal between them and Bank No6 and then use breathing apparatus to get through to the surface, but to some of the men it looked like an impossible plan. The breathing kits traditionally used by rescuers were heavy and complicated and took weeks of training to use. The situation was also starting to get to some of the younger miners.

“There were a few of them panicking,” says Mr McDickens. He says some of them wanted to make a run for it and take their chances in Bank No6 but he remembers one of other miners, Sandy Hamilton, spelling out the reality of the situation to them. “I always remember Sandy telling them ‘On you go, I dare any of you. You’ll no get a hundred yards down that mine and you’ll be doon’. He knew the gas would kill them.”

And so they waited, gathered in the dark, no food, no water, and with the levels of gas rising. Day one became day two. Then the rescuers called to say that the escape plan was on. First, the trapped miners would dig through to Bank No6 and then teams from the Mines Rescue Service would guide them out using lighter breathing apparatus called Salvus that had never been used in a mine rescue before. It had been arriving from all over the country after a nationwide appeal.

The miners started digging right away, taking it in turns in teams of three, but it was exhausting work. They hadn’t eaten in days, there was no water, they had to use picks and shovels because an electric borer would have been too risky and they were starting to weaken. And all the time Andrew McDickens knew what was on the other side: Bank No6 would be full to the gunnels with gas and they would have to walk nearly two miles through disused and dangerous workings to get to the surface. Was it possible?

There were other problems that made the situation look bleak. With every passing hour, there was less oxygen and more gas in the chamber where they were sheltering. The phone line to the surface was also becoming weaker with each call – it could go at any minute and they would be completely cut off. And all the men knew that another sudden in-rush of sludge and peat could happen at any time and that would be it. They carried on digging.

The breakthrough to the disused mine – and their potential escape route – happened late on the second day, but they had to be ready to fill the hole up again immediately if too much gas started to seep through from the other side. The atmosphere among some of the miners was also getting tense. The men had been buried alive for more than 30 hours by now and a thousand feet of gas still blocked their escape route.

What helped to boost their morale was the arrival of Dave Park, a former miner and New Cumnock boy who was now a manager with the Coal Board. As soon as Park had heard about the disaster, he had headed to New Cumnock and insisted on going underground to try to reach the trapped miners. Using breathing apparatus, he made it to the chamber where the men were holed up and told them about the plan: they would be taken out in threes and fours, and if everything went according to plan there would be enough oxygen to get them to the surface – no more.

But it was all too much for the youngest miner, Gibb McAughtrie. It is totally understandable in the terrible situation, but the 18-year-old lad suffered a mental breakdown and oversman Houston ordered him to be restrained on a stretcher. It also meant that Gibb was incapable of getting out himself. He was strapped into the breathing apparatus and dragged out on the stretcher by the first of the rescue teams. It was exhausting and difficult and took more than two hours, but by 3pm on September 9, they’d made it and got Gibb to the surface. He was the first man out.

Back underground, Andrew McDickens remembers feeling that time was running out. By this point, he was lying down to use what was left of the oxygen and by the time it was his turn to leave he realised there was next to no time left. “I can picture us all,” he says. “I was in the last dozen or so that was left and we were depending on the boys on the other side.”

But so close to the end, it nearly ended in disaster. Andrew McDickens strapped on his breathing apparatus, climbed through the gap into Bank No6 mine and began following the rescuers along the shaft. Something was wrong though. They were going the wrong way and the man at the head of the group was leading them into a shaft that was full of gas. The breathing equipment meant that the men couldn’t speak to each other so Mr McDickens waved his hands to indicate they were going in the wrong direction. “If we had followed him, we would have lost our lives,” he says.

A few difficult, tense minutes later, Andrew McDickens was out on the surface where hundreds of people were gathered including news reporters from across the country – the three-day rescue had been a massive international story and would later be made into a movie, The Brave Don’t Cry (I ask Mr McDickens what he thought of the film. “Not much,” he says.)

“There were hundreds of people at the pithead when I got out,” he remembers, “and it was such a relief to get up to the top. I was all right.”

He also couldn’t help thinking about that phone line that had kept clinging on. “There would have been no hope without that phone,” he says. “They would have known nothing about where we were and I suspect if that phone hadn’t been working, we would have all died.”

Elsewhere at the pithead, Sheena Daubney had also been waiting for her brother Robert to emerge. “Nobody was telling us what was going on,” she says. “We were just hopeful that things would be all right. We stood there and they were brought up one at a time and you wondered if it was Robert. It was a while before he was brought up.

“I remember when I saw his face for the first time. The local policeman came over and said ‘that’s Robert up now’. They were taken off to an ambulance. All I wanted to do was run over there and hug him, but I didn’t know if we could. We went to see him in hospital the next day and he didn’t tell us anything. He was a bit funny; he wasn’t himself. All I felt was relief.”

Another remarkable part of Robert’s story is that Knockshinnoch was not the first time he had been in such a dangerous situation. Robert was a veteran of the navy and while he had been serving on a submarine, it had run into trouble and he had been trapped for several days.

“We didn’t know then that he’d been in a disaster already,” says his sister. “He didn’t tell our mum and it was only through the pit disaster that we found out. Robert had used the breathing apparatus before on the submarine and showed the other miners how to work it.”

Like Robert, Andrew McDickens was also taken to hospital to be checked before going home to recover. The rescue teams then reluctantly admitted there was little hope for the 13 men who’d been trapped in the shaft closest to the in-rush. When their bodies were eventually found, it was discovered that two of them, John Dalziel and William Howat, had survived for about a week underground looking for a way out. They had written messages on the walls with chalk. One of the messages read: “Still trying”.

There was another terrible postscript to the tragedy too. Throughout the three days that the men were underground, a network of volunteers did everything they could on the surface. Many of the miners’ wives, daughters and sisters, including Sheena Daubney, helped out in the canteen; volunteers from the Salvation Army also attended to offer food and comfort. But in the hours after the rescue, three Salvation Army volunteers were killed in a car accident on their way home from New Cumnock. 

A few weeks later, a public inquiry was held into Knockshinnoch and it concluded that working so close to the peat had been a breach of regulations and a number of improvements were introduced to working practices as a result, including the installation of phone lines that would be resistant to the kind of in-rush that happened at Knockshinnoch. Andrew McDickens knew that a phone line saved his life and the hope was that it might save others in the future too.

Mr McDickens’s own view is that the accident should never have happened. “They were too near the surface and someone should have said ‘there’s something wrong’,” he says. But he also says he always knew mining was a dangerous job. He and his fellow survivors had three months off after the disaster and although some of them couldn’t face going back down again, most of them did because most of them felt they had no choice, including Mr McDickens. “Mining was the only thing there was,” he says.

Seventy years on, he is still fit and well and likes to go fishing when he can, but on September 6 the priority will be attending the service to mark the 70th anniversary. It will be held at the Knockshinnoch memorial near the site of the old mine. There is a small cairn that points to the place where the peat and sludge collapsed into the mine. There are also 13 red stones, one for each of the men who died. And the guest of honour will be a 93-year-old man who was there and came through. The last survivor.

View news footage of the disaster from 1950 here.