King Harald, the president of the Norwegian Parliament, Dag Terje Andersen, and Labour Minister Anniken Huitfeldt were among those taking part in a memorial on Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of a gas explosion in the state-owned Kings Bay mine that killed 21 workers. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in Norwegian history and toppled the Labour Party government held responsible.
The abandned mine, located at Ny-Ålesund on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, was already covered with snow as mourners gathered above the spot where 11 of the victims remain buried. It was too dangerous at the time to extract their bodies after what Andersen called “an incomprehensible tragedy for many people” in post-war Norway.
Operations at the mine were considered strategically important at a time when Norway was keen to asset its presence on Svalbard, where Russia also staked claims, during the Cold War. Accusations flew that the government, or at least the state bureaucracy, knew the mine was dangerous, but operations continued. The government resigned after a loss of confidence vote in the Parliament less than a year later, but later returned to power.
Monday’s ceremony stressed the importance of safety in the workplace that rose after the Kings Bay accident. Mourners included survivors and colleagues of the victims, and former residents and workers at Ny-Ålesund. “If it hadn’t been for the accident, I’d probably still be here,” 87-year-old Oscar Bye told news bureau NTB. “We were like a big family up here.” The state didn’t take care of the victims or their families back in 1962 like it does now, Bye noted. “We only had each other.”