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Welsh mine flood: families gather in Rhos as rescue effort continues

Drilling into old workings may have caused water ingress but the experienced miners are likely to locate airlocks

The waiting game began at Rhos community centre, a pebble-dash building next to the village football field and playground. As news spread of the accident at Gleision colliery two miles up the valley, friends and relatives of the four men trapped underground gathered there.

They paced backwards and forwards, nervously drinking tea and coffee. Some stepped outside from time to time for a smoke. They could do nothing but wait.

There were poignant moments. One mother outside the village hall was heard telling her young daughter: “Don’t worry, Daddy will be back soon.”

Another local man, who is a close friend of one of the trapped miners, said the man had recently returned to the pits after a spell of unemployment. “He just wanted to do good by his family. People don’t go mining for fun, they do it because they have to and the risks are still there.”

Miners from other pits in south Wales rushed to the scene to try to help. One, his face blackened, said: “As soon as we heard we stopped everything and got here.”

“It’s very difficult,” said Bethan Jenkins, a Plaid Cymru assembly member. “The terrible thing is that there is no communication with the men inside. The families don’t know how they are.”

For many local people, especially older ones, the incident sparked memories of waiting games in the days when hundreds of mines were in operation in Britain. Another assembly member, Gwenda Thomas, said: “It makes you realise how vulnerable we all are. I remember once hearing about an accident at the mine where my husband worked and having to wait for news of him. It is so difficult.”

At one time these valleys were dotted with coal mines employing many thousands of pitmen. The Gleision colliery, a drift mine, is a rare survivor. It has shut and opened several times in recent years as the price of coal has dipped and peaked.

The mine, cut into a hillside near Cilybebyll, Pontardawe, in the Swansea valley, is one of a handful of small private mines in the area. It employs only seven workers, including the owner. The mine has two access tunnels supported by girders. The main tunnel, used by miners, has railtracks for coal drams, and it provides ventilation and drainage. The second tunnel is at right angles and is used as an emergency exit. Further in, the mine is supported by timber. Workers extract coal either kneeling or lying down.

Andrew Watson, of the Mines Rescue Service, said it was a small but “quite complex” mine. He said: “We are trying to remove water from the mine. As we do that we are opening up access to the other roadways and as we get those roadways open, we are getting in and searching for the miners.

“It’s a small mine but it’s quite complex once you are in it. The big issue is getting the water levels down. That does two things, it gets ventilation back into the mine, gets air circulating in the mine, and it lets others access the mine.

“We are not 100% certain what went wrong, but all the indications are that they have probably knocked into old mine workings. That would have contained some foul air, some mine gases, and could well be the source of the water.”

The Health and Safety Executive said the mine was last inspected in 2010 and another check was due this year.

Local people expressed their shock. Elizabeth Howells, who lives in the house closest to the mouth of the mine, said: “It is dreadful – everyone has their fingers crossed that the four will come out alive. I see the miners coming and going past my house every day. It’s a narrow lane so they drive very slowly. They are very pleasant and often stop to say hello. They don’t live in the village but travel from a good few miles away because of the work.”

Emergency rescuers emphasised that the men were experienced miners who would have known how to find airlocks that could help them survive an accident.

One rescuer said: “We hope they are safe and dry, tucked up somewhere above the water. But the fact is that we don’t know until we get in there.”

Another former miner, who has been comforting the families of the men trapped underground, believed the workers had drilled through into old flooded workings. “That caused a huge amount of water to start pouring through into the tunnel. Apparently it was an enormous volume of water which blocked the way out for most of the miners who were working there. It shouldn’t happen because most of old mine workings are mapped but some of the really old workings are unknown and this could have been filled with water from all the rain we’ve had recently. “They are going through hell in there. We just have to wait now. It is terrible for the families.”

Inevitably, the accident prompted some to recall the Chilean accident that trapped 33 miners for 69 days. While not comparing the Gleision incident to that, rescuers were bracing themselves for a long rescue effort.

As night fell, Red Cross workers brought blankets to the Rhos community centre so families could sleep there if they wished. “We’re in this for the long haul,” said Jenkins. “This is a strong community … we’ll get through this.” © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds