Modesto Varischetti, two days after his rescue from the mine, 1907
Modesto Varischetti two days after his rescue

A few days ago the whole world cheered when two divers reached the twelve schoolboys and their teacher trapped underground in Thailand. Now the question is how to get them out of the flooded cave safely.

Over a hundred years ago, a rescue team in the West Australian goldfields faced a similar problem. I came across the story while I was researching other events for the book I’m working on.

On 19 March 1907, a 32 year old miner named Modesto Varischetti become entombed 1,000 feet underground when the gold mine where he was working, at Bonnievale, near Coolgardie, flooded. A sudden heavy downpour filled the shaft with debris-laden water in minutes. Twenty other miners narrowly escaped by being hauled to the surface through the muddy deluge.

Varischetti, trapped in an air pocket off the side of the shaft, could be heard knocking. But initially the miners held little hope that he could be rescued. They estimated that it would take ten days to pump all the water from the shaft. The equipment needed would have to be brought from some distance away. The only good news was that an air compressor, used for boring in the shaft, was still operating. This would allow air to be pumped to the trapped man.

Inspector Josiah Crabb, the local mining inspector,  took charge of the rescue efforts. After a sleepless twenty four hours, during which pumping had lowered the water level only a few inches, he decided to send for divers, in the hope that they could get food and other supplies to Varischetti. According to legend,  Crabb’s young son suggested this to him. The initial plan was to do whatever was necessary to keep Varischetti alive until enough water could be pumped out to rescue him.

Frank Hughes, an experienced diver working as a miner in Kalgoorlie, arrived at the Bonnievale mine. But he lacked the equipment needed to reach Varischetti. His opinion was that, once the necessary equipment arrived, an attempt should be made to get the man to the surface, without waiting for the water to subside. Four divers, with deep-sea diving equipment and tubing, were rushed 560 km from Perth to Coolgardie on a specially commissioned train.

Divers in their diving gear, Western Australia, 1907
The divers in their working gear. Inspector Crabbe sits between divers John Curtis and Frank Hughes.

Nearly three days after Varischetti had been trapped, Frank Hughes reached the weakened but thankful Italian with food, candles and encouraging messages. The rescue team abandoned the idea of dressing him in a diving suit and bringing him out, due to his poor state of health. With further supplies brought by Hughes and the other divers, Varischetti survived in the air pocket for nine days. He was finally rescued, through chin-deep murky water, on 28 March.

People all over Australia eagerly followed news reports about the trapped man and the efforts to rescue him. After Varischetti was brought to the surface, he and his rescuers became celebrities. Still shaken and pale, the rescued man was taken to Perth by train. There he was welcomed by the crowds, entertained by Government ministers, invited to the Governor’s garden party, and endlessly interviewed by newspaper reporters. Varischetti, who spoke little English, quickly tired of this and returned to the mines.

On 12 April, Frank Hughes and others involved in the rescue were presented with medals and money collected by a public subscription. Their heroism had helped to distract everyone in Western Australia from the more disturbing events of the previous months – stories that form the basis of my book.

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Heroic divers in 1907