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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pit of despair: Bodies of the four trapped miners found one by one in flooded tunnels

-One miner was trying to escape, second found where he had been working
-Remaining two miners found 33 hours after the collapse
-Chief constable 'this was the result none of us wanted'
-Seven men originally trapped but three pulled to safety
-Divers forced to abandon rescue attempt due to debris and water levels
-Accident is 'tearing the heart out of the community', says local MP
-Government will hold a 'full investigation' into the disaster
-Prayers to be said across Wales on Sunday for loved ones of four victims

By Paul Harris

Rescue operation: The scene at Gleision Colliery shows emergency services frantically working to locate the two miners trapped inside

In a small, pebbledash community hall on the outskirts of the village, they waited all night and all day for news.

There were mothers and fathers here, children, brothers and sisters; firemen, churchmen, police officers; people who had worked in the mines for most of their lives.

No one was sleeping much, or even talking that much – not when everything was focused on the race against time that was going on around them.

Workers: A large number of mine rescue specialists have been helping in the efforts at Gleision

Then it came. In the early hours of yesterday, while emergency teams were frantically trying to reach four men trapped deep underground in a flooded coal mine, they learned that the first of the four had been found…dead.

One by one, each family was told the news in private by family liaison officers who had been with them for the previous 18 hours or so. But in the cruellest twist imaginable, rescuers were unable immediately to recover the body or identify it. The same happened when a second victim was located. Then a third. Then the final fourth.

Thus, for most of yesterday, these ordinary, decent people were left with the agony of uncertainty over whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Gradually, through a Russian roulette style process of elimination and an escalation of the odds, the chances of finding anyone alive diminished with each body that was discovered.

Charles Breslin, 62, David Powell, 50, Phillip Hill, 45, and Garry Jenkins, 39, were all found in close proximity to each other inside the Gleision colliery in South Wales.

Their bodies were found next to the section of the mine where they had been working on Thursday morning, indicating they had almost no time to escape the torrents of water that came flooding into the cramped tunnel.

Leaving: Several rescue workers left the colliery this morning after spending 12 hours trying to find the trapped miners

Deaths: Fireman Chris Margetts, Superintendent Phil Davies and Peter Hain MP announces that the bodies of two trapped miners had been found

Locals: Two women hug at a nearby community centre, as Peter Hain MP says the accident is 'tearing the heart out of the community'

As each grim find was announced, the team of 50 rescue workers vowed to continue their search in the hope of finding at least one survivor. But by 6pm, the terrible outcome had been confirmed.

One member of the team, his face blackened from the task, said: ‘We did everything we could to reach these guys, but in the end it was just a mission impossible. It was pretty clear they had been probably been dead since the start. They didn’t have much of a chance.’

Last night, as the colliery came to terms with the deaths, Prime Minister David Cameron described the deaths as 'desperately sad'.

'It is clear the emergency services have done everything they can and worked incredibly hard,' he said.

'They haven't lacked for anything but it is obviously a desperately, desperately sad situation for everyone concerned.

'The anguish of the families obviously is intense, worrying about their loved ones and the news is not good at all.

Grieving: This is the second tragedy to strike the area in the last week

'There is going to be desperate sorrow in those families and communities as they come to terms with the loss.'

As the community was united in mourning, opposition leader Ed Miliband said he sent his 'deepest condolences to the families of those who have died.'

He added: 'These are tight-knit communities and this is a tragedy not only for the families but for the whole community of the Swansea Valley.'

The dead men had been part of a team of seven mining for coal deep in a mountain side about ten miles north of Swansea when the flood hit.

Mr Powell’s son Daniel, 26, and colleague Mark Lloyd, 45, had managed to run to safety to raise the alarm just after 9am on Thursday.

Mines manager Malcolm Fyfield, 56, was hauled out and was flown to hospital in a critical condition. When expert rescue teams arrived, they spent the day and night pumping thousands of gallons of water, thick with debris and silt, out of the shaft.

Moving out: Divers had to abandon their mission as mine shafts were blocked by rubble

Relief effort: Many more workers arrived yesterday to continue the the rescue attempt

Eventually divers were able to get inside and yesterday morning the first body was discovered in deep water.

One woman wept under the strain of what she later described as ‘mental torture’. The wife of one of the four told local Neath MP Peter Hain she would rather have been given the news ‘straight up’ than to face the almost unbearable wait to discover whether her husband might have survived.

‘Four families going through hell’ was how the former Labour minister summarised it after visiting them yesterday.

Chief Fire Officer for Mid and West Wales Richard Smith said: ‘It’s a bit too early to tell whether the deceased would have stood any chance of survival or not but the fact they were found together where they were working will probably be indicative of that.’

Dangerous: A picture from 2008 shows the Gleision mine when it was derelict

The ramshackle mine is said to contain lots of smaller tunnels and shafts which could have pockets of air for the trapped miners to use

Media scrum: The press have descended in force on the rural area to follow the progress of the rescue attempts

Firemen: The fire service has been at the forefront of the operation

Asked about the effect finding the dead bodies had on the rescue workers, he continued: ‘Initially there was hope there. I think it was quite clear as the day progressed that a sombre mood came across the whole scene.’

The tragedy – the worst accident for decades in this area – has torn apart a local community whose heritage is steeped in coal.

Although few now work in the ravaged industry, many have fathers and grandfathers who devoted their lives to it.

An emergency services helicopter circles the mine after it collapsed

This image released by South Wales Police shows emergency workers gathering outside the mine to try to locate those trapped inside

The attempts to locate the four missing men started on Thursday morning

The pain of loss, therefore, was just as close to home. In the pebbledash hall, every piece of bad news triggered hugs and kisses, and silent tears.

The contrast yesterday was that on the surface, life went on. During the morning, wedding day preparations were being made in a marquee in the grounds of an elegant house at the foot of a hill above the mines.

Brightly coloured signs on telegraph poles and lamp-posts around the village pointed the way. In the afternoon, a classic car chauffeured the bride to her happy day in the sunshine. Close by, nearly 300ft underground, there was only darkness.



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