A coal-mine fire kills 262 workers in Marcinelle, Belgium on August 8, 1956. This highly publicized disaster was the worst ever in a Belgian mine and led to many policy changes.
The disaster itself was typical of coal-mine tragedies. An accident began at 8:10 AM when the hoist mechanism in one of the shafts was started before the coal wagon had been completely loaded into the cage. Electric cables ruptured, starting an underground fire within the shaft. The moving cage also ruptured oil and air pipes which made the fire worse and destroying much of the winch mechanism. Smoke and carbon monoxide spread down the mine, killing all the miners trapped by the fire. With the families of the miners waiting aboveground at the scene, it was not until August 23—more than two weeks later—that rescue workers could reach the deepest level of the mine. Reportedly they said, “tutti cadaveri” immediately, which is Italian for “all corpses.”
The rescue workers were speaking Italian because the majority of workers at the Le Bois du Cazier mine were Italian. At the time, Belgium was experiencing a labor shortage and had made agreements with Italy to trade work visas for coal. The tragic fire resulted in 136 Italian workers losing their lives; the immigration agreement between the two countries was terminated immediately. Despite an attempted rescue from the surface, only 13 of the miners who had been underground at the time of the accident survived. 262 were killed, making the mining accident the worst in Belgian history.
Belgium also called a conference on safety in coal mines in the aftermath of the disaster. In September 1956, the Mines Safety Commission was established. It was charged with monitoring safety procedures and developing new regulations. The country’s prompt response to the disaster led to much improved safety in Belgian and other European mines.