A coal-mine fire kills 262 workers in Marcinelle, Belgium, on this day in 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. A fire broke out in the coalface underground and spread to all levels of the mine, trapping the miners. 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.
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.
Years later, an Italian movie called Marcinelle was produced about the disaster. The mining complex at Marcinelle also became the Museum of Industry after the mine was permanently shut down. One part of the museum is a memorial to those workers who lost their lives.