Belfast Telegraph

Miners, modern life and why we all wanted a miracle

By Gail Walker

Last year's dramatic rescue of 33 Chilean miners caught the whole world's attention and was one of the wonders of our time. It brought the word 'miracle' back into currency and for once, it was completely plausible.

That all those men came to the surface after so long underground was surely as out-of-the-ordinary as it gets.

Sadly, the deaths of Charles Breslin (62), David Powell (50), Phillip Hill (45) and Garry Jenkins (39), in Gleision Colliery in South Wales delivered a shocking blow to our complacency.

Like the epic in Copiapó, the story of their plight 300 feet below ground gripped the whole nation for more than 24 hours. There was hope that they would be found alive and well.

Instead, the bodies of the miners were recovered on Friday. It seems they had had no time to escape before the tunnels flooded, though three colleagues - including Mr Powell's son Daniel - had managed to get out and raise the alarm.

That having been done, it was natural to imagine the emergency services swinging into action, divers making their way through the caverns, and the men eventually brought home safe to their families.

This is the 21st century. This is Wales. This is Britain.

It was not to be.

Even in the midst of advanced technology, state of the art communications, massive resources of hardware and determined volunteers, the grim reality of the risks faced by miners once more claimed the day.

There is something about the old industries - trawling, shipbuilding, steelworking, mining.

They retain a power over us which no modern occupation exercises.

Maybe it's because they involve physical labour, a one-to-one relationship with the elements which is missing from most jobs in our city lives.

Maybe it's that they thrived among close-knit communities, built them in fact, bound them together, were the glue of social and family life.

Or maybe it's that they defined honest hard-working people, put bread on the table, shoes on the feet, and books in the satchels of children so they might grow up not to have to risk their own lives.

Let's face it, for all the drudgery and mind-numbing repetitiveness of office work or the many 'service industries', those jobs simply don't provoke immediate sympathy when crisis or even tragedy strikes. But let a trawler go down or a mineshaft collapse or a boiler burst, and something deep-seated in all of us responds.

We hope along with the families and, usually, we grieve with them and with the extended community that so often turns out to show solidarity. Of course, those trades have all but disappeared.

With them have gone most of what we understood by community. Even in Northern Ireland, that word reeks of divisiveness, because we have two of them and they are at odds with each other and only rarely - as with the murders of Michaela McAreavey and Ronan Kerr - do they unite.

Yes, there are still people going daily into danger to earn a living, but now they live in Indonesia and China and South America, where heavy industry moved in pursuit of labour as cheap as it used to be here.

It was a surprise that there was still mining going on in south Wales. It was even more surprising that it is still as dangerous as it ever was.

In a way, the spectacular experience of the Chilean miners spoiled us.

It raised our expectations of what is possible in our sophisticated western world, especially with such set-piece dramas.

If there's an earthquake or tornado or tsunami raging around, we still know anything can happen to spike the heroic efforts of the emergency teams and stack the odds against survival.

But being trapped underground? Surely we had that one cracked.

We didn't. And again we joined our prayers to those of a small community of familiar pebble-dashed homes in the Swansea Valley.

It's a pity that it takes tragedy to make us feel that we are part of a world that cares about something other than itself and its celebrities and its leisure and its bank balance. Something bigger than ourselves.

Other people.

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