Gleision one year on: 'I will never forget what those families went through'
FOR South Wales's National Union of Mineworkers General Secretary Wayne Thomas, responding to the Gleision disaster was far more than a duty — it was also personal.
The union man, who has spent 35 years in the mining industry, two decades of which were underground, knew all four of the trapped men personally.
He said: "Two of the men who died, Charles Breslin and Garry Jenkins, were very good friends of mine and I knew the others. Many years ago I was in the Army Cadets with David Powell and my younger brother had worked in mines with Phillip Hill and his father over the years."
The 52-year-old Swansea Valley-based father of two, who was at work in the NUM office in Pontypridd when he took the call, said: "As with all of us, when I first heard it was surreal. I was told that there was an inrush and four miners were trapped.
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"We know that miners can be trapped in all sorts of environments in large scale mines but when we learnt that it was a small private mine, all sorts of thoughts were going through your mind. We knew there would be problems with that."
While the four were not members of the union, Mr Thomas said: "Being in my area, the Upper Swansea Valley, you just turn up automatically, sadly the union is experienced in dealing with accidents, serious injuries and fatalities."
Himself a former member of the Mines Rescue Team, Mr Thomas feared the worse from the outset.
He said: "We knew from the outset that even though the furthest point of the mine was 300 metres and there was an inrush of water, nobody could grasp the scale of how much water had entered the mine.
"Having spoken to people who had recently left the employment of this company, we knew the scale of it and knew that there was a potential avenue where those lads could have gone to avoid the water.
"There was a glimmer of hope, albeit very small, and obviously we hung on to it until we tragically heard in the early hours of the next morning that the first body had been found."
Despite the bleak outlook, Mr Thomas had nothing but praise for the rescue team. He said: "I knew from the outset that these guys would not give up until they found them alive or recovered the bodies.
"They were there to do a job and they did it professionally. As far as I'm concerned, they certainly did a wonderful job, along with the other emergency services.
"Some of the older guys had attended incidents previously where there were fatalities so they were accustomed to the harsh reality of mining but some were lads in their early 20s, so to be involved in an incident like this was a horrific situation in itself, but for them to come across their first body, must have been difficult to cope with.
"But I do know that the older, more experienced guys did shelter the younger ones from the harsh reality of four bodies."
Of his own role in the unfolding drama, Mr Thomas, who was in constant demand to talk to the media, said: "I was just trying to ascertain what was going on and what they were trying to do. Speaking to some of the family members who had worked in mining, they knew that the circumstances were difficult.
"It was just a case of trying to reassure the families until we had either good news or bad news."
And the very people who were there to break the news added to the problem at times in Mr Thomas's opinion.
He said: "As someone from a local mining community I found the media circus surrounding it all difficult, we were not accustomed to having a large- scale spotlight on our communities.
"On this occasion it included some of my friends, who were potentially to be saved or their bodies recovered.
"It was difficult on a personal front, to be honest, and I found some of the approaches from the media very insensitive. They were clearly there just to tell a story, regardless of who was involved and, more importantly, who it was affecting. I learnt a lesson that weekend."
Mr Thomas said the families' long wait for news, inside Rhos community centre, would live long in his memory.
He said: "One of the biggest things to stick in my mind is even though some of these families didn't know each other prior to this disaster, they were certainly extremely supportive of each other during the days and evening, it bonded them together, albeit for a sad reason. We do know that since then they have formed close friendships that will probably last for ever.
"The support that each family gave to the other was certainly nice to see but tragic under those circumstances."
In the same vein he said he would be forever haunted by the tragic news that the first body had been found.
"It was not very pleasant to walk into the community centre when one body had been found, they were all hoping that it wasn't their relative but in the same breath, not wanting it to be anyone else's," he said.
"I will never forget what those families went through over those two days and certainly in the days, weeks and months afterwards."
And while the police have yet to decide whether any criminal proceeding will be brought over the disaster Mr Thomas has one wish — that the mine never opens again. He said: "Technically, a licence could be applied for to work the Gleision mine again one day in the future, but realistically and morally I personally don't think that it should ever be reopened."
And there is one huge plus to come out of it all with Mr Thomas saying: "As regards to community spirit being done away with, that's certainly not the case — the amount of support the families were getting from near and far was amazing — but it really is sad that it took something of this nature to bring us together. We hadn't seen it for many years but we knew it was there."
Alex Jenkins, son of Garry Jenkins, and his team mates on the Dulais Valley Lions Under 15s rugby team, will hold a minute's silence in memory of the tragedy, ahead of their 11am game in Seven Sisters tomorrow.