A Safety Match/Chapter 20

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The search party had concluded its investigations, and stood at the foot of the shaft, which fortunately had not been injured by the distant explosion,—waiting for the cage.

A pit-bottom is an unexpectedly spacious place, more resembling the cellars of a ducal mansion, or a city station in the days of the old under-ground, than a burrow in the hidden places of the earth. Whitewashed brick archways open up long vistas, illuminated by electric lamps. Through an adjacent doorway streams the cheerful glow of the engine-room, from which the haulage of the trucks is controlled. Only in the "sump," below the level of the flooring at the foot of the shaft, the water gleams black and dismally.

"Is there any other road to explore, Mr Walker?" asked a huge man in blue overalls, with a patent breathing apparatus strapped upon his back.

"No, Sir John. All we can do at present is to get the ventilating gear going again, and then send down a double shift to get to work on the main road, in the hope of finding some one alive at the end of it. Meanwhile we will go up and look at the pit-plan."

"How long do you think it will take to get through? You know more of the anatomy of this pit than I do."

"It depends on how far the roof is down. It will be slow work, for we must re-prop as we go. Twenty yards an hour is about the best we can expect to do, working top-notch all the time. And if the road is blocked from end to end, as well it may be, it will be a question of days, Sir John."

"And in Number Three they have neither food nor drink?"

"Neither, to our knowledge. Probably they have a little water, though. We must get at them double quick. Here is the cage coming down."

The cage roared upwards between the wooden guides, black with long use and glistening with oil and water; and presently the party were back in the great shed which covered the pit-head, pushing their way through anxious inquirers to the office buildings.

Leaving the other members of the search party—an overman and two hewers—to report progress, Sir John and his manager shut themselves into the inner office. Here Walker unrolled the pit-plan, which, with its blocks and junctions and crossings, looked very like an ordinary street map.

"Here we are," he said. "We have been able to explore the whole pit except this part here"—he dug the point of his pencil into a distant corner—"and the reason is that the means of access to that particular level are blocked. Here is where the block begins." The pencil swiftly shaded in a section. "There is the intake, all blown to smithereens; that and the road to Number Three. But if there are men alive in the pit, Number Three is where we shall find them."

"Do you believe that they are alive?" asked Juggernaut.

"I do. It seems incredible that the whole roof should have come down. We must get the ventilating plant in order and dig them out; that's the only way. We should be able to start work immediately."

"Right!" said Juggernaut, bracing himself at the blessed thought of action once more. "I'll call for volunteers."

A minute later, appearing at a brilliantly lit window, he addressed the silent throng below him. To most of them this was the second speech that they had received from him in twelve hours.

"We have been down the pit," he said. "There has been a biggish explosion, and Number Three is cut off by a heavy fall. The air below will be breathable in less than an hour, and we are going to set to work right away, and clear, and clear, and clear until we find out whether there is any one left alive there. Now,"—his voice rang out in sudden and irresistible appeal—"we want men, and plenty of them. Short shifts and high pressure! Those poor fellows have very little water, no food, and a doubtful air supply. I ask for volunteers. Who will come down? Step forward—now!"

A gentle ripple passed over the sea of upturned faces. Then it died away. The distance between the speaker and his entire audience had diminished by one pace.

"Thank you!" said Juggernaut simply. "I knew I had only to ask. Mr Walker, will you call the overmen together and get going as soon as possible?"

so the work began. Six hours earlier the men of Belton had failed in an enterprise for lack of a leader. Now they had found one.

Sir John Carr drove the first shovel into the mass which blocked the main road, and for the space of thirty minutes he set a standard of pace in the work of rescue which younger and more supple successors found it hard to maintain.

Shift followed shift.

Sunday morning dawned up above, and the sun swung into a cloudless April sky, but still the work below went on—grim, untiring, unprofitable work. Hope deferred succeeded to hope deferred.

Twenty-four hours of blind energy advanced the rescuers three or four hundred yards, but there seemed to be no end to the fall. Progress was growing slower too, for the excavated material had to be carried back farther every time. Once during the second night word was sent up the shaft that two men had been hurt through a fresh fall in the roof, over-eagerness being the cause. Still the work went on. And so Black Sunday drew to a close, to be succeeded by a Monday of a very similar hue.