Evening Post 15/09/2012
NEATH MP Peter Hain was in the middle of a high-powered meeting in Westminster when he first heard that something had happened in a private mine in his constituency – within the hour he was on his way back from London.
The experienced politician was an almost ever-present presence in the tiny village of Cilybebyll, situated on a hillside above the Swansea Valley, over the three days in which the Gleision Colliery disaster played out.
As the tragedy unfolded he worked tirelessly to comfort the families of the four trapped miners, offer his support to the emergency services and to keep a ravenous global media informed.
He was also to set the wheels in motion that saw over £1million raised for the miners’ families.
Speaking exclusively to the Evening Post on the eve of the anniversary of that dark day, which saw the name Gleision Colliery appear on news channels around the world, he said: “I literally rushed out of Westminster, abandoning my meeting and diary for the rest of the day, because I had a feeling that it sounded very serious, worse than the sort of accidents that happen from time to time in local mines.
“I immediately got the first train down and arrived at the Rhos community hall as soon as I could.
“The mood at that stage was obviously one of concern, the families had started to gather together, most of them were sitting in groups in the hall, it was a very solemn mood but there was still a spark of hope.”
However Mr Hain was already preparing himself for the worse.
“At that stage nobody knew how serious it was but I instinctively felt that I should adopt a serious tone in the interviews I gave.
“The mines rescue service, the fire brigade, the police, everybody was doing an outstanding job, but I felt in my bones that this was potentially a serious tragedy.”
That feeling of foreboding was soon to spread.
“As the long hours wore on, it was 30 hours before it came to a close, the gloom deepened in the hall, it was as if a dark cloud, a blanket, had descended.
“The families became increasingly numb.”
They did, however, draw a measure of comfort from the community around them.
Mr Hain explained: “They could sense that there was this welling up of support around them.
People bringing food, refreshments, people turning up to volunteer to make tea or coffee, virtually all through the night.
“I talked to everyone I could and they were all grateful that I was there and pleased with what I was saying because it reflected what the community was feeling.”
Mr Hain was also instrumental in helping set up the Swansea Valley Miners Families Appeal Fund.
He said: “I went back home to have diner with my wife Elizabeth in the Neath valley after doing some late night interviews. We were talking about the families, thinking what we could do, we thought, they are going to need support because now they are on their own, the media caravan has gone away, the public has gone home. That’s when I thought of the idea of setting up the appeal fund. By the end of the first day we had raised £20,000 and by the end of the weekend we had raised £50,000 and then the postman arrived in the office, not just with the normal bundle of mail but with sacks of mail. The response was absolutely magnificent and it just kept coming in.”
Many observers have since remarked on how the wider community took the disaster to heart as it were.
Mr Hain has his own theory why this happened.
He said: “The thing that made it emotionally so powerful, for so many millions of people, was we thought that this type of mining tragedy was something that happened to our grandparents and great grandparents, not something that would happen today. But it did! That was what was so terribly, terribly shocking about it. There are no major public ceremonies arranged to mark the anniversary but all will pause to remember, not least the families.”
Mr Hain said: “I’m sure there will be a few things happening but I don’t think the families want a fuss. They have had to endure all of that. Although they have all been immensely grateful for the community’s support, to come to terms with this deep and bitter loss, in front of everybody, rather than behind their own doors, is very difficult.”
Mr Hain, who will spend this weekend in his Neath constituency with his own thoughts, said: “One of my abiding memories will be of the young son of David Powell walking in front of his dad’s coffin, he was bravely leading the funeral procession.
“One of the benefits of the miners’ fund is we will be able to help him when he gets older. “Another lasting memory was being at the entrance to the mine on the Friday morning and seeing the calm, resolute, utter determination on the faces of the miners rescue team and all the other emergency workers. “The way the two big mines in the Neath Valley, the Aberpergwm and Unity mines, responded was also incredible.”
“Their trained rescue workers arrived within the first hour and brought all the equipment, they were absolutely critical, if those men had still been alive then they would have got them out. “The final thing that sticks in my mind, and I feel haunted by it, is the mine inspector showing me the plan of the mine and where they were working. It was clearly shown that they were heading straight towards an area of abandoned mine workings, marked water. Why? They knew they were headed there, that is something that still has to be answered.”