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THIS month marks one of the Central Coast’s most grisly anniversaries — when a work gang was run down by a train in Woy Woy Tunnel decapitating one and leaving the line strewn with body parts.
The shocking event made headlines across the State around August 22, 1940 and sparked a Coronial inquest into how three men could be killed and four others seriously injured while doing maintenance in the tunnel.
One of those killed was 42 year old John Dillon of Woy Woy south who is buried at Point Clare Cemetery. The other killed and injured members of the work gang were from Sydney and Newcastle.
Construction of nearby Brooklyn Tunnel circa 1880s. Construction of Woy Woy tunnel would have been similar.DANGEROUS JOBNewspaper reports of the time detailed the events of the tragedy, including the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate which covered the inquest.
It reported that 17 witnesses gave evidence at the inquest including three of the injured men who were not long out of hospital and still struggling with injuries.
“Woy Woy tunnel, where the tragedy happened, is the longest in the Commonwealth. It is one mile 10 chains long. Repair work has been proceeding for some time, and the men have been paid an extra 6d a day for what has been classed as dangerous work” the newspaper said.
Woy Woy station around 1910. Picture: Central Coast Libraries Gostalgia.The testimony of Angus McKenzie Blackley, labourer, of West Wallsend, was also reported and made alarming reading.
He said he was in a gang of seven in the tunnel at the Newcastle end where they were mixing concrete on planks laid on the down rails.
Blackley told the inquest the movement of the men in manholes was restricted because of the number of tools and material necessary on the job. Two of the five lamps used by the gang, of which he was a member, were taken out for repair. There was no flagman (lookout) or telephone attendant on duty, but there was a flagman for the other two gangs in the tunnel. After lunch, the gang was told there was a train coming from Newcastle.
NO VISIBILITYHe said that after that train had passed, the men spread out over 20 yards on the “down” road. The engine was smoking badly, enveloping the tunnel in black smoke. The noise was terrific.
“Without any warning, I was thrown between the rails and the wall of the tunnel,” Blackley said.
“I was knocked to the ground, and tried to pull myself closer to the wall, but was struck again on the back of the head, and remember no more.”
Replying to the Coroner, Blackley said that on occasions while men were working in the tunnel trains would go through at 25 miles an hour.
William Whitten, another member of the gang, told the inquest he received “a smack on the back”.
Woy Woy Railway Tunnel is 1.79km long and at the time of construction was the longest such tunnel in Australia.KNOCKED OUT COLDHe said he had no knowledge there was a Newcastle bound train coming, and received no warning. He was knocked against the wall and was unconscious. He remembered later calling for help, and was assisted out of the tunnel by other workmen.
Woy Woy police constable L.B. Browne told the inquest he had gone 600 yards into the tunnel and found the bodies of three men strewn over the down line. A head of one man was five yards from the body.
He said he was later handed a hat and cap which had been carried all the way to Woy Woy station on the front of the train.
SCREAMS HEARDThe newspapers coverage of the disaster continued:
“Limping into the witness box, Reginald Lyal Mason, labourer, of Adamstown, said he glanced over his shoulder and saw the engine right on top of him. It knocked him six feet onto his face. He heard screams after the train passed, and saw portions of bodies on the line.
“William Frederick Brown, acting engine driver, of Hornsby, in charge of the train, said he received the all clear signal from the automatic signals at the tunnel mouth, and saw a flagman with a yellow flag. This indicated to him there were workmen in the tunnel, and that speed had to be reduced.
“He drove through the tunnel at between eight and 10 miles, an hour, which was the regulation speed, but found it full of smoke and visibility bad. He did not see any men standing on his set of rails.
“Replying to Sergeant Barber, witness said when his vision ahead was obscure, he blew his whistle three times, and applied the air brakes. He was driving blindly through the tunnel, and the first news of the tragedy was received from the stationmaster at Woy Woy.
The engine was not fitted with electric lights, and there was no light in front of the engine going through the tunnel.”
The tragedy resulted in unions accusing rail authorities of a cover up and instituting work bans where they would only work in the tunnel if they had full visibility from one end to the other.
This article first appeared on www.dailytelegraph.com.au
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