Marcinelle – Le Bois du Cazier

I slept in again this morning. I mean, on the weekends I’m allowed, but I try not to as late as I did today. Mind you, I was up reading till about 4am so…

When I finally got up Adeline, Greg, and Bastien were watching Kung Fu Panda. Oh boy is it strange listening to it in French. I kept expecting to hear Jack Black’s voice, but no! I stayed for a minute before going back to my room. About an hour or so later I went to have a shower and then we had lunch. Bastien ate really well at lunch today! I decided to take advantage of a free afternoon and do something.

It was a last-minute decision, no planning. I just opened my book of touristy things and looked for something that a) wasn’t too far away and b) wasn’t a castle or war related. I’m trying to expand my horizon’s here. I ended up picking Le Bois du Cazier in Marcinelle. It’s the location of an old mine and is now a museum. There is also an Industry and Glass Museum on the same property (same ticket) and I looked at those a bit, but not as in-depth as the mine section. Also, I took a couple of pictures in the glass museum before seeing a sign that said no pictures!

“In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the Charleroi region became one of the principal centres of economic activity in Belgium.” ~ from the pamphlet I got at Le Bois du Cazier. After WWII Belgium wanted to up its coal output and if I remember correctly a lot of the locals refused to work in the mines – that should tell you something right there. In Italy there was a surplus of people and not enough jobs. The Belgian government advertised in Italy for men to come work in the mines in Belgium. They drew them in with excellent sounding perks and whatnot, but as with most things, it was not quite what they were expecting. And as it seems to be in my experience, most safety measures are only put in place after a lot of people have died. Hundreds of men had died in the mines before this, but August 8th, 1956 marked a change in the mining industry and its standards of safety and treatment of employees. On that day 262 men – ranging in age from 14 to 58 – died as a result of a fire in one of the mine shafts. The cause of the fire itself is a little difficult for me to explain. I saw a diagram showing what happened and watched a video where they explained it so I’ll try my best to recount it for you. On one of the lower levels (975) the man who was loading coal wagons into the cage thought that a certain cage was meant for him and so put a wagon in it. According to the diagram I saw, there was already a wagon in the cage and when the cage was raised (because neither were placed properly) they fell out causing breakages in pipes and the like which caused the fire. That’s the best I can do. A few men managed to get to the surface to raise an alarm. In total, only 13 men survived and they were all brought up by 4:30 that afternoon (the fire broke out around 8:10 that morning). After 4:30 Aug. 8th they would find no more living beings in the mine. It wasn’t until Aug. 22 that they managed to get down into the lowest levels. They had to check although rescuers knew they were only going to find corpses.

95 of the men were Belgian, 136 Italians, the rest made up of men from 10 other countries. . Not all were married, but there were many women who became widows and children who became orphans that day. It mentioned the solidarity the event cause, and how all of Europe came together because of it. With the rescue efforts they couldn’t use the two main shafts (one had the fire and the other…I can’t remember all why, but I know the cages in both shafts were unusable), they had to use a third that was being dug. Directly below the ‘tragic shaft’ is a memorial that pays homage to the victims. It has the names and pictures (names for all, pictures for most) of the 262 men, where and when they were born and if they were single, married, etc, and had children. As I mentioned about the ages of the men (some boys really) ranged from 14 to 58. I was shocked at first when I saw that a few of them were 16. Then when I saw the 14-year-old I thought ‘he doesn’t look old enough to work in a mine’. It was all quite moving and sobering. It makes me glad that at least now for most jobs there are important safety regulations in place to prevent as many accidents as possible. Of course, you can’t predict everything that will happen and something will go wrong where no amount of safety regulations will be able to prevent. In times like that all you can do is pray and have hope. I think losing someone in accidents like this might be worse than in war. With war you always no that there’s a chance of the person/people you love not coming back. But this was their job. This was something they did day in and day out and were always expecting to come out alive at the end of the day. Of course, there were accidents before that and people died or got sick from the mine, but never at this mine in such a large quantity. And of course, all the families lived right there so they were all there waiting for news. Watching as those first few men came out and realizing with every passing hour, every passing day the chances of seeing the person they most wanted to see at that moment became smaller and smaller.

It’s a horrible shame that so many had to suffer because of the greed of ‘industry’.

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  1. Unfortunately suffering is in our “human nature” … I wish it weren’t so.

    On a lighter note, here’s a song from “Kung Fu Panda.”


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