Beaconsfield a decade on

francis seenNIGEL TAPP

A decade ago most Victorians would not have been able to confidently place the small Tasmanian mining town of Beaconsfield on a map, even if they knew it existed.

But then, on 25 April, 2006 – a decade ago this month – the Tamar Valley town became the centre of world attention when three miners were trapped 925 metres underground as a result of a rock fall triggered by a small earthquake.

The body of one miner, Larry Knight, was found a few days later. But Brant Webb and Todd Russell would be trapped until 9 May as the world watched and waited.

Within 24 hours the world’s media descended on Beaconsfield as residents tried to come to grips with what was unfolding.

At the centre of this community upheaval was the local Uniting Church and community minister Frances Seen.

The church first opened its doors in response to the tragedy on 26 April and the lights were not turned off again until Webb and Russell had made their way to safety. And when the pair did land back on firm ground it was the ringing of the church bell – for the first time since World War Two ended – which first informed the community they were safe and well.

Mrs Seen said there was always a willing ear or shoulder on hand day and night and local parishioners – from Exeter to Beauty Point – made sure there was always food available.

“The Exeter people, from a church about 15 kilometres away, sent a maxi taxi full of casseroles on the first day.”

In the middle of the unfolding drama Mrs Seen and her team also found time to comfort members of the media who suddenly lost one of their own – nationally recognised television journalist Richard Carleton – to a heart attack while covering the incident.

“The people from Exeter again sent casseroles on the day Richard died.”

Looking back on the events of a decade ago, Mrs Seen admitted that in the space of a few hours the entire town was turned upside down.

Mrs Seen said she had felt the underground tremor on 25 April but thought little of it; such ground movement was not uncommon in a mining town.

The following morning, before travelling the 35 kilometres to Launceston for an appointment, Mrs Seen heard on the radio that miners had been trapped and taped a simple “Please pray for our Miners” message to the front of the church.

By the time Mrs Seen got to Launceston there were calls for her to return so the church could begin providing support to the community it served.

“We started just to be here for the local people and it escalated from there,” she recalled.

“There was no plan, no agenda, we just put music on and sat there and prayed. It was certainly led by the (Holy) Spirit.

“Sometimes there would be a song or piece of scripture which would seem significant for that day, but most of the time we just prayed.”

Mrs Seen said the church was generally busiest after dark as people came to grips with another day going by and no guarantee Russell and Webb would actually walk out.

Many of the locals also saw the church as one place of refuge as the town became overrun with media. Mrs Seen said the media had, on the whole, acted with respect throughout the event.

“They were among the most respectful people I had come across. They did not seek to intrude and always rang and made appointments if they wanted an interview.”

That mutual respect was part of the reason the church opened its doors and embraced the media when Carleton tragically passed away.

“We just did what we thought was right for the media people. They did not need us preaching to them but we wanted to show them that we were thinking of them.”

Not everyone may have agreed with the fact alcohol was consumed on the church’s premises that night but Mrs Seen seems as unconcerned by the complaints now as she was then.

Mrs Seen admits that the disaster put the town on the map. Beaconsfield has re-invented itself as a tourist town in the aftermath, particularly given the mine was closed a couple of years after the incident.

“It showcased the town to the world in a way that we did not want. For years afterwards busloads of tourists would come.”

The Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre has a display devoted to the rescue and is a popular tourist attraction.

While that is a tangible reminder, Beaconsfield has not sought to remember the events on an annual basis. A recovery and reflection service on 9 May this year will be the first since 2007. The service will be held at 11am and people wishing to attend are asked to register with the West Tamar Council on 6323 9200.

Mrs Seen has been invited to speak and it is expected that only three people will grace the stage.

Although they still live locally, it is not known if Webb or Russell will attend.

Mrs Seen – who has known Russell all his life – said there had been a great deal of respect in the community for the pair which had allowed them to go about their lives in privacy.

“I would think they feel comfortable here,” she said.

Mrs Seen said the events of a decade ago had shown the Uniting Church to be a true church of the community and she was proud of the way the West Tamar parishioners had rallied to the cause.

Life has returned to normal in Beaconsfield today. Drive down the main street and there is little to remind you of what happened a decade ago.

And that is how the locals want it.

“You never forget it but you don’t dwell on it, you move on,” Mrs Seen said.

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