The body of a fourth miner was discovered in Gleision Colliery in South Wales last night, in a final crushing blow to a small Welsh community that had clung tenaciously to the hope that someone would be pulled alive from the earth.
“We've tried to bring this safely to its conclusion. Unfortunately the conclusion we have is the one none of us wanted,” said Peter Vaughan, Chief Constable of South Wales Police, confirming that Phillip Hill, Charles Breslin, David Powell and Garry Jenkins had all perished in the worst British mining accident in three decades.
“I can't begin to imagine what the families are going through,” said Mr Vaughan. “We've been humbled by the community spirit that's been shown during this most tragic of incidents.”
As David Cameron offered his condolences on a “desperately, desperately sad situation,” Neath MP Peter Hain said: “This is the end we all feared but hoped against hope wouldn't happen. Extraordinary courage was shown by the families right through the night, tortuous hours of waiting. We can't imagine what they have been through.
“This has been a stab right through the heart of these local communities. There's a long tradition of mining here but nobody expected the tragedies of past generations would come today.”
Prayers will be said across churches in Wales this Sunday for the loved ones of the four victims who perished in the disaster.
Archbishop of Wales Dr Barry Morgan said the tragedy had moved an entire nation and the world — as well as striking a chord with him.
“My heart goes out to the families of those killed in Gleision Colliery,” he said. “The whole community is heartbroken for them.”
Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan described it as “a truly devastating day” for the men's relatives and Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones (right) said: “We thought in South Wales that the days of mining accidents were behind us but we were wrong.” Throughout the day one ambulance after another, its lights extinguished, had travelled down the single-track lane to the flooded colliery in South Wales.
In scenes reminiscent of generations past, rescue workers, their faces smeared in sweat and grime, had worked “tirelessly and selflessly”, putting in a “super-human effort”.
The disaster began on Thursday morning when the miners were blasting underground. A wall, holding back water, collapsed and flooded the shaft. The seven miners inside scrambled for safety and three made it out, though one was critically injured.
A father and son were separated. Andrew Powell (23) made it out along with Mark Lloyd (45) and Malcolm Fifield (46) but almost 300 feet below ground his father David (50) remained trapped alongside Mr Hill (45) Mr Breslin (62) and Mr Jenkins (39), all men from the Swansea Valley.
The body of the first miner was discovered before rescuers even made it to the blast site suggesting that the man had been trying to escape to the exit.
Divers who tried to swim towards the blockage were then forced to turn back because of the debris and appalling visibility.
When rescuers finally made it around the rubble they came across the body of a second miner, buried in silt.
Rescuers then found a third during the early afternoon and a few hours later the fourth near by.
Last night, the authorities turned their attention from a rescue operation to an investigation into how such a devastating disaster could take place.
Gleision Colliery is a drift mine, meaning that miners can walk straight in rather than having to be lowered down a deep shaft to get to the coal. Gleision has been operational, with occasional short breaks, since the early 1960s and managed to weather the Thatcher era. Anthracite coal, one of the most valuable and cleanest forms of coal, was being dug out at Gleision.
How the rescuers’ hopes turned to despair as bodies found one by one
THURSDAY, 9:20am: South Wales emergency services are called to the colliery after four people are trapped. Seven people were initially in the mine, three of them got out — one taken to hospital. The families gather at Rhos Community Centre where they are kept informed.
1pm: As the news breaks, a police spokesman describes the rescue as “a dynamic situation”.
3pm: Superintendent Phil Davies says emergency services are conducting a “difficult rescue operation”.
5pm: It emerges that the miner taken to hospital is in a “critical condition”. Mr Davies also says water is ingressing into the mine.
6.20pm: Chris Margetts of South Wales Fire Service says he is “very hopeful and optimistic” the four miners can be rescued. He says the miners have been located approximated 90 metres underground down a 250 metre (820ft) main route into the mine. Rescuers cannot communicate with the men.
9.30pm: The missing miners are named by South Wales Police as Phillip Hill (45), Charles Bresnan (62), David Powell (50), and Garry Jenkins (39).
FRIDAY, 4am: Rescuers say divers have been forced to return above ground and abandon their efforts after about 30 metres.
6.20Am: Mining engineer Frank Russell says he is “very, very positive” about the outcome of the operation and added the experienced miners “know what to do to keep themselves safe and warm”.
8.30Am: Police say the body of a miner has been located but has yet to be identified. All the families have been told. Chris Margetts, from South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, says the dead miner was found on the “exit side of the body of water” and that it was “quite possible the team has been split”.
10.15Am: Official sources say a man who failed to get out of the mine is the father of one of those who escaped.
1.30pm: Police say a second body has been found and that the first has now been recovered. It is |confirmed that water levels have dropped inside the mine, and rescue crews are “slowly and steadily” removing debris.
3.10Pm: Police confirm a third body has been found in the mine. A second ambulance is seen leaving the scene.
6.03Pm: The fourth missing miner has been found dead, South Wales Police Chief Constable Peter Vaughan confirms.