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Des O'Connell @ The Coalface

Des O’Connell has hung up his hard hat after more than 50 years working in underground mines in New Zealand and here in Queensland.

The Kiwi followed in his father’s footsteps getting his first job underground at Strongman Mine on New Zealand’s west coast when he was just 16 years old in 1967.

“I worked along the longwall during my time. My first job was pushing the empty skips and wagons around for the underground guys who would fill them with coal using a shovel and then I’d take it out.

“I was only at Strongman mine for two years before I left. They said all the mines were going to close! But they’re still saying that now, more than 50 years later.

“So, I went across the ditch to Australia and travelled around the country for several years before going back to Strongman in New Zealand in 1974.

“I was there until 1995 and then I came over to Australia again. I had a mate working in the mines over here, so he got me a job at North Goonyella Mine near Mackay.

“It was good working underground. It was scary at times, but the older guys always kept an eye on you. There’s quite a comradery between workers underground – you all have each other’s back.”

Des O'Connell @ The Coalface

Des only stayed at that mine for six months before getting a permanent job at Glencore’s Oaky North mine. He worked on any falls underground, fixing bolts, etc. and did that for 28 years before retiring earlier this year.

Des saw a lot of changes during his time in mining, from pit ponies to safety improvements, to the length of the shifts.

“It is a lot easier and a lot safer now compared to what it was. When I first started everyone shoveled the coal into skips but now the big continuous miners do it.

“When I started in New Zealand all you got given was a lamp and a hat, there was no training and you had to buy all of your own clothes and boots, but now you don’t have to, and they even wash your clothes for you!

“We didn’t have much in terms of electricity, we had winches but most of it was just us and horses.”

The shifts for Des were seven hours long in New Zealand and eight hours at Oaky North, until about the year 2000 when they changed to 12-hour shifts.

Des earnt £15 when he started all those years ago, which as every miner will attest to is nothing compared to what is earnt these days, particularly underground.

“I had one very close call underground working. I was burnt, 30 per cent of my body was burnt when methane caught alight when I was working in New Zealand. I was 37 years old at the time and I ended up staying in hospital for four months.”

Des O'Connell @ The Coalface
Des, his wife Annie and their three children Jane, Dane and Catie.

Des has been married to his beautiful wife Annie for 35 years, and they had three children all born while they were in New Zealand.

“My wife worked in the coalmines for a while, she worked in open cut for 11 years here in Australia at Moranbah and at Blackwater. My daughter Jane has been at Kestrel mine since she left school. Dan, my son had a couple of years underground but he didn’t like it so he left to do farming instead, and my other daughter Catie never got into mining. She lives in Wellington in New Zealand these days.”

Many workers at Oaky agree that their ‘Dessy’ was always looking out for them. Des worked as an Operator and trained many people throughout their careers, including the current General Manager and Senior Site Executive, Damien Wynn, who worked with Des during his time underground as a Graduate.

The day he retired; he was surprised by his workmates with a farewell celebration.

“I met many great people. In those 28 years we had a lot of changes because when Okay North first started, I was one of the first starters, there were 19 of us. When I left there were about 500 working there. I was the last original to leave.

“They said it was just going to be a bit of a luncheon, but then my wife and daughter turned up, there were bagpipes, a march through town and speeches. I was very touched,” Des said.

Des O'Connell @ The Coalface

Oaky Production Manager Clint Cody said when you think of Oaky North you can’t help but think of Dessy.

“Dessy is synonymous with Oaky North, so we’re naturally sad to see him go. But mostly we’re so happy for him that he gets to spend more time with his family.

“Even in his 70s, Dessy is still one of the hardest working people I know, and the most humble.

“His retirement will leave a massive gap in the longwall where he works, and in the business overall. Thankfully he’s mentored countless people across Oaky Creek, so his knowledge and his work ethic are deep-rooted throughout so many of us. Dessy, thank you for everything, mate. We all wish you the best and hope you enjoy your well-earned retirement!”

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