"It felt like the world stopped."
David Willcock can recall the moment when disaster struck in the Appin colliery 40 years ago.
Mr Willcock was celebrating his 41st birthday on July 24, 1979 and was was half way down the mine when 14 co-workers were killed in a methane explosion.
At the time of the explosion, 45 men were underground. Ten miners died in the crib room while enjoying tea and sandwiches, and another four were found varying distances away.
Mr Willcock said he "didn't know what had happened" at the time, but he knew that something wasn't right.
"There was a big gush and everything stopped," he said.
"There was no ventilation and so much dust that I couldn't see in front of me.
Mr Willcock and his team wore breathing apparatus and eventually made their way to the top of the mine.
That's when he found about the tragic incident.
"We had no communications [underground] so we didn't know what had happened," he said.
Mr Willcock had worked at the Appin Mine for 12 years when the explosion occurred.
He said the mine was closed for a "couple of days, or maybe into the next week" before he headed back underground. Mr Willcock stayed at the colliery until his retirement in 1997.
"It didn't bother me [going back], I just got on with the job," he said.
Fast-forward 22 years and Mr Willcock returned to Appin this morning to commemorate the disaster's 40th anniversary
Mr Willcock was among more than 300 people - including current and former miners - who attended the commemoration service at the Appin Mine Memorial Garden.
Mr Willcock, who turns 81 today, said it was a moving service.
"The disaster happened a long time ago, I mean I retired 22 years ago now," he said.
"It was good to see a few old friends at Appin today."
The service included a moving speech from Stephen Peck, whose father Peter died in the 1979 tragedy.
Paul Garrity, the son of fallen miner Frances James Garrity, also read out the following poem:
"The moment that you had died, my heart was torn in two.
One side filled with heartache, the other died with you.
I often lie awake at night, when the world is fast asleep.
Take a walk down memory lane, with tears upon my cheeks.
Remembering you is easy, I do it everyday.
But missing you is heartache, that never goes away.
I hold you tightly within my heart.
There you will remain / Until the joyous day arrives that we meet again.
God bless all the 14 miners.
May they Rest in Peace."
A local choir and Appin Public School students also performed tribute songs and South 32 Illawarra Metallurgical Coal employees laid wreaths in the victims' honour.
Illawarra Coal operations vice-president Jason Economidis said the service was an opportunity to remember the victims, as well as acknowledge the families and community members who were affected by the 1979 incident.
"It's important that we come together to commemorate our lost colleagues, friends and family members," he said.
Wednesday's event included the concept unveiling of a memorial piece to commemorate the disaster's 40th anniversary.
The piece is being designed by Artventure, a partnership between sculptor Paul Johnson and designer Gail Mason.
The final work will be completed and unveiled in July 2020.