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Thursday, 31 July 2014

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‘The ground just opened up and took everything with it’

RESIDENTS of an Egremont street evacuated after a mineshaft opened up last week will not be able to return to their homes until after Christmas.

Nine homes on Howbank Road were evacuated on safety grounds after Wednesday’s incident, in which a worker had to be rescued when a 200ft-deep hole opened up.

Residents were yesterday (Wednesday) being allowed supervised access to their homes to collect their belongings.

Landowners Copeland Council has temporarily closed the hole, but says it will take six weeks for a full repair.

Meanwhile a man who plucked a workman from the edge of a crumbling mineshaft has been hailed as a “hero”.

Ryan Rickerby, of Howbank Road, Egremont, watched in horror from his kitchen window as a gaping hole opened up behind his house on Wednesday last week. It swallowed up his neighbour’s shed, a huge drilling rig and large areas of gardens.

The 25-year-old Sellafield worker rushed out to find a workman clinging to his garden fence.

The man had been attached to the drilling rig by a works harness and a lanyard which were dragging him into the hole.

But the quick-thinking pipe-fitter was able to get him free and pull him to safety before he was pulled into the 200ft shaft.

Mr Rickerby, who had been washing the dishes at the time of the collapse, said: “This bloke looked like he was waiting next to the rig about to start his day’s work.

“The next minute there was a loud noise and the house started to shake.

“It sounds surreal but the ground opened up and kept coming back towards the house.

“It ended up getting the machine and a shed which was gone in the blink of an eye. I heard the man shouting and I ran out and unclipped his harness.

“He was down on his knees and in another 20 or 30 seconds I think he would have been in the hole. He was shaking.

“He did say at the end that he had to have a few cigarettes. I don’t normally wash pots but it paid off this time.”

Mr Rickerby was hailed a hero by his neighbours, including Judith Smith, who watched the drama unfold from her window.

She said: “There was a huge rumble and the ground just opened up and took everything with it.

“The man’s machine went into the hole, and although he managed to jump out and was clinging to the edge of the hole and shouting for help, he was still attached by a wire to the machine and it was pulling him under.

“Ryan saw what was happening from his window, and ran from his home – not thinking about his own safety – and unclipped the man from the machine and saved him. He’s a hero in my eyes.”

Eight houses were evacuated on Wednesday afternoon and a ninth the following day while Copeland Council works to make the area safe.

Elaine Woodburn, leader of Copeland, said that the council has been monitoring that particular area for around a year.

“The safety of residents is our top priority, and when it was identified that there may be a shaft in this area behind Howbank Road, we closed the area off to monitor it but found no ground movement in 12 months.

“We then did geophysical tests that did identify there is a shaft there and we gave the contract to Atkins to cap it. They were drilling and pouring concrete in to fill the holes when this collapse happened.

“We are dealing with a legacy of mineshafts in this area – some are 100 years old – and we are dealing with the unknown; there are no maps to tell us where they are. Residents are living in constant fear.

“People came in, took out the benefits of the mines, and then filled them with trees and other unsuitable products that have simply worn away over time and left people now to pick up the cost, and face the distress of things like this happening.”

The Egremont area is heavily populated with mineshafts and last week’s episode is the latest in a series that have caused problems for residents over recent years.

Only four years ago, another mineshaft further along Howbank Road was identified, only yards from the newly-opened one. Three homes were evacuated as a result and although the shaft has never opened up, the properties have recently been demolished and the area fenced off.

In 2005, nine homes were evacuated and later demolished after a large mineshaft opened up in a resident’s back garden on Greenmoor Road, also on the Smithfield estate.

Other mineshafts have been identified and repaired, including one on Chapel Street car park and another on the former Wyndham School’s tennis courts.

Dave Banks, a local mineshaft expert, said that the two on Howbank Road are the only untreated mineshafts he is aware of in the Egremont area.

“Although the exact figures are not known – as there are no maps giving their details – it has been estimated that there are 300 mineshafts between Lamplugh and Beckermet.

“However, the worst ones have been capped by different people in different ways over the years.”

The shaft that opened last week – an iron ore mine called Gilfoot Park No 2 – was part of the Wyndham Mine network on which Egremont sits.

Visit www.whitehaven-news.co.uk for video footage of the collapse.

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