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Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Gleision Colliery tragedy

It is difficult to write about what happened at the Gleision Colliery over the last two days. I have no mining background, I knew none of the men who tragically lost their lives nor do I know their families. I do not live in the close knit communities where they have their roots and yet the deaths of these four miners has profoundly affected me as, indeed, the tragedy has impacted upon the consciousness of the whole Welsh nation.

The days when tens of thousands of men were employed in the South Wales mining industry are long gone, and yet coal dust still flows through the veins of the valley communities. Coal mining remains an important industry here. Hundreds of people are employed in drift mines and open cast operations, whilst plans are afoot to open another major drift mine at Margam that may employ up to 500. The anthracite that these men were mining is a vital fuel for major coal-fired power stations.

Extracting coal from the ground is a tremendously hazardous and difficult process. It is fraught with danger and the possibility of something going wrong constantly hangs over the heads of the exceptional men and their families who continue to make a living in the industry. The ghost of many past tragedies hangs constantly over the communities who support this activity.

During the search for the missing men I was moved by interviews with local people who had been through it before, who had waited anxiously for news of loved ones trapped down a mine, not knowing whether they had perished or whether they were safe. At these times the whole community rallied round, taking turns to offer comfort and practical support to the families most directly involved.

That spirit was evident in Rhos as well and its legacy is the main reason why everybody living in South Wales this morning feels the deaths of these men so personally. It is as if we have lived through each agonising, anxious minute ourselves, though none of us can even begin to imagine what the families are feeling.

Many of us felt that mining accidents were a thing of the past. It has been a generation since a comparable loss of life in South Wales so the impact of this particular accident was even harder. Clearly, the investigation into what happened is now underway. As ever we have to hope that its findings can ensure that we never get another tragedy like this one.

In the meantime our minds and our hearts now turn to the families and their grief. They have borne the trauma of the past few days with dignity. It is time to leave them and their community in peace to come to terms with their loss.

It is time too to acknowledge the commitment, dedication and bravery of the emergency services who moved heaven and earth to try and find these men and get them out alive. They did everything humanly possible to save the four miners but the odds were stacked against them. We spent 36 hours hoping but our hopes were dashed in the most devastating way. It is a tragedy that will live with us all for many years to come.
"The days when tens of thousands of men were employed in the South Wales mining industry are long gone, and yet coal dust still flows through the veins of the valley communities."

My Welsh family extending back were valley folks, many worked in the coal industry; one even built bridges to carry the 'coal trucks'.

My paternal grandfather was serious injured down a pit and as family folk lore goes, he was laid out on the kitchen table to die, he was so badly wounded it was thought he would die, but he survived. I hardly got to know him even though for a time he lived relatively close by as my Welsh father moved us all to London in search of work where I had some learning experiences as a Welsh boy with a thick Welsh accent and thereby assumed to be thick.

I have many great Welsh uncles on the mother's side of my family who worked down the pit, one was a 'winder' and during strikes he was one of the few that the striking men picked to work through the strikes - without his engineering skill the seams would flood and the big elevators damaged. My maternal parents run the White Hart Inn in Bedwas for a while and then retired to a council estate below the Bedwas slag heaps; I remember visiting them and on some days you could smell VOCs from a local phurnacite plant. So though I have never been down a Welsh pit, I have a family memory of what it was like and the terrible injuries and deaths that come from such work.

So yeah, I am profoundly affected like Peter Black at such tragic events, one's blood vessels are so tuned into such awful events it is hard to explain, and it affects me whenever I learn about a recent coal mining related death of which there have been quite a few around the world including the next state to me: West Virginia (WV), so many accidents there and so much tragedy. PA has had a few recent incidents too, but for the most part the miners got out alive. But in WV a report went out that the missing miners were found alive when in fact they were found dead. Their folks were first elated and then squashed like bugs.

So it's a universal thing, people with past or current family members connected to the coal industry, we feel for them all regardless of their location/country.

God Bless Them All.
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