Wednesday 20 December 2023

A Jovial Giant Remembered

It was not long after 11pm on the night of 24 July 1979. A group of 14 miners were having dinner in a crib room about 600m underground at a coal mine at Appin when it is believed sparks from a fan starter box ignited a build-up of methane gas. One of the group was a man by the name of Jurgen Lauterbach. I would like to write about his story and that fateful night all those years ago.

My interest in Jurgen's story developed when I came across a number of books in Campbelltown Library's local studies collection dedicated to the memory of Jurgen Lauterbach and his death in the Appin Mine Disaster. The finding stirred my curiosity and I thought I would research the story further. Much of this post comes from information from Jurgen's younger brother Frank.

Earlier on that awful day, Jurgen had made his way from his home at Chester Hill that he had shared with his wife Maia to the Appin Colliery. They had been married for only a year and were soulmates. Jurgen was nine years younger than Maia. Like many who worked there, Jurgen held some concern about the safety of the mine for some time. Still, the job paid well and the financial benefits seemed to outweigh any safety concerns. Jurgen was always a glass half full kind of guy anyway. He was described by his brother Frank as in-your-face- a real can-do person. He stood at 6 foot 7 inches and was always jovial and joking around. When Frank visited the body not long after the disaster, Jurgen still has a smile on his face.

Jurgen's joviality was a remarkable trait considering his background. His 11-year-old brother Udo, described by Frank as a perfect child, died from drowning, leaving his mother devastated. His parents had a strained and combative relationship from that point and his mother went on to become bipolar and abusive. Jurgen was left to virtually raise his two younger siblings on his own. Despite this burden, Jurgen remained positive and ambitious, studying engineering. He was also interested in getting his pilot's licence and dreamed of flying around Australia's entire coastline. Little wonder that Frank, aged ten years younger, idolised his older brother. 

Did Jurgen Lauterbach and his 13 other colleagues die in vain? One positive outcome from the tragedy was the formation of Work Cover, an organisation set up to regulate the state's workplace health and safety. However, on the other side was the fact that following an investigation straight after, no charges were laid, despite two subsequent inquiries into the cause of the blast. The NSW Mining Department also investigated only hours after the explosion. No person was ever fined or gaoled after the incident. A similar tragedy occurred at Bulli in 1965 that left four dead and that also saw no person or company punished- a fact that along with the outcome of the Appin enquiry, left Frank and his family unsatisfied and disillusioned that justice wasn't served.

Jurgen Lauterbach was cremated at Leppington and his ashes moved to Rookwood. He was aged 30. His wife Maia never remarried.

I would like to thank Frank Lauterbach for sharing his story with me and wish him well in fighting for justice and to overcome the mental health battles he has had to endure since the incident in 1979.

Frank is pictured here with his brother Jurgen on the right. It was the last photo taken of them together on Mother's Day 1979. (Frank Lauterbach Collection)

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