COLLIERY disasters have cast a dark shadow over the history of the Welsh mining industry but a decade ago few had given thought to the possibility Wales may not have seen its last underground tragedy. 

However on a bright September morning in 2011 the true dangers of working underground were brought into sharp focus once more as a rescue operation was launched to try and save four miners from the small private Gleision drift mine at Cilybebyll, near Pontardawe.  

Sadly the rescue operation had no prospect of success. An explosion had released gallons and gallons of water which filled the underground shaft the men had been working in shortly after 9am on September 15, 2011. 

Garry Jenkins, who was 39, David Powell, 50, Phillip Hill, 45, and Charles Breslin, 62, had been trapped 300 foot from the surface and had little chance of survival. 

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The alarm had been raised as three others had managed to escape and within minutes the police and fire service were on the scene of what would become an operation involving 200 people by that afternoon. Rescuers would work through the night. 

Clare Snowdon is a reporter at the South Wales Guardian and was working in the paper’s Ammanford newsroom on September 15, 2011. 

“We were hoping it was going to be a rescue situation, not a recovery situation,” is her initial memory of the day.  

“It was tragic and it was devastating but at the point, on the Thursday, people were still hoping those four men were going to come out. 

“At the beginning all we knew was there had been an explosion and as it unfolded we began to realise the extent of it.” 

A reporter and photographer had been dispatched to the village though during that Thursday attention switched to the nearby Rhos Community Centre where the anxious families of the four missing men had gathered. 

Just less than a year earlier 33 miners in Chile had survived more than two months trapped underground before their eventual rescue in a story that captivated the world. 

It possibly offered hope that a similar outcome could be achieved. 

Sadly there could be no such optimism as at 8.30am the following morning the body of Garry Jenkins, was discovered. 

By 6pm on Friday, September 16 the bodies of David Powell, Phillip Hill and Charles Breslin had all been recovered and identified. All the men lived in the local or neighbouring areas. 

While the area is part of the south Wales coalfield, and at the time there were still large mines, Unity and Aberpergwm, in operation in the Neath Valley, many had considered underground mining to be part of the area’s past. What remained of the industry, which still employed some 1,200 people at the time including around 400 underground, was concentrated in open cast operations. 

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Since the industry had wound down from the 1980s onwards land had been restored and the dangers of the industry were considered to be its lasting effects on the health of the men who had worked underground – not that men were still in harm’s way. 

The real potential for danger in the industry was underlined just last week when mining company Three Ds Mining Ltd was fined £100,000, at Swansea Crown Court, for breaching health and safety laws after an employee was badly injured when a roof collapsed. 

Miner Gwyn Woodland has been unable to work after cheap wooden roof supports gave way at Danygraig Colliery in 2017. 

The firm had been found guilty of failing to ensure the safety and welfare of employees at its mine which was also in the Neath Port Talbot borough. The firm isn’t currently trading. 

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“Disasters are something you think of from years ago and people still talk of the effects of mining such as illness. 

“It was one of only a few mines left in the area and it was only a small mine and I certainly didn’t know it was there,” said Clare of how the Gleision tragedy had alerted her to the reality of small private mining. 

“This is a big mining area and we’ve got the miners’ welfare halls where the men would gather and they still and do and everyone talks about it. People haven’t really recovered and it affects a lot of people every year as they remember what happened. 

“It sent shockwaves right through the valley as everyone does know everyone. It did bring back awareness of the dangers and what those men were doing going into the mine, those four men had no idea when they were going down there they wouldn’t come back.” 

To mark the ten year anniversary two small memorials are being unveiled. 

At 4.30pm today a memorial dram will be unveiled at Rhos Park, next to the community centre where the families had gathered exactly ten years earlier while at 6pm on the Swansea Valley Cycle track a memorial bench, provided by Cilybebyll and Ystalyfer community councils, will be unveiled. 

Relatives and survivors call for answers in BBC programme  

A programme to be aired on BBC Wales tonight will hear calls from survivors of the tragedy and relatives of the men who died for answers over how it occurred. 

Survivor Jake Wyatt, who worked as a fitter in the mine, has told the BBC Wales Investigates programme Trapped Underground: The Gleision Mine Disaster he feels there are still questions to be answered. 

“My opinion was all this was going to get swept under the carpet. Nobody wanted to know anything about it and it went from being such a high profile case to nothing within a couple of years,” he said. 

His fellow survivor, Nigel Evans, added: 

“As it stands, now, nobody's been blamed. Somebody must take responsibility for four bodies, four men, four lives, you know? 

The National Wales: Nigel Evans, left, and Jake Wyatt Picture: BBC WalesNigel Evans, left, and Jake Wyatt Picture: BBC Wales

Relatives of the four miners have also told the programme that they now want an inquest into their deaths.  

The mine's manager, Malcolm Fyfield and owners MNS Mining were found not guilty of manslaughter charges following a three-month trial in 2014. After the trial, the acting coroner for Swansea decided against holding a full inquest into the deaths. 

Lynette Powell, whose husband David celebrated his 50th birthday in the weeks before he died, said all she has is a temporary death certificate. 

"That is no closure for me," she said. "I haven't got an inquest. Not only for me, for all the families." 

Charles Breslin's widow, Mavis, said she feels "cheated" of a husband and an inquest. 

The call for an inquest is also supported by the co-owner of the mine, Maria Seage, who said: “There's still so many unanswered questions and the only way to get them answered is reopen the mine, re-survey the mine, have a proper inquiry or proper inquest. And if, by doing that, I am found that I have done something wrong - as far as I know I haven't - but if that day comes and they find yes I have, well, I've got to take what's coming.” 

A ‘factual report’, published by the Health and Safety Executive in 2015, gave details of the underground investigation undertaken by its inspectors after the tragedy, but was unable to explore concerns that had not been raised in court. 

In the programme, Lee Reynolds, a former surveyor for Gleision mine who gave evidence in the trial, questioned whether alleged illegal mining at Gleision in the 10 years prior to 2011 had been noticed or acted on by the HSE. 

Mr Reynolds has been working with Ms Seage, the co-owner of Gleision mine, to get more information on the HSE's inspections over the years and its subsequent role in the police investigation. 

The HSE has told the BBC it would be inappropriate to comment on the points raised by Mr Reynolds, because the investigation into the accident and subsequent trial were led by the police and Crown Prosecution Service respectively. 

In the programme, Jake Wyatt also described what happened when he was working underground in the small drift mine on the day of the tragedy. 

He said: "We heard the blast. Then within seconds you could hear, I described it as a jet engine. We knew something had gone drastically wrong. So, I jumped on the belt and we both said the same thing - 'run'. I remember crawling down and within about 10 yards I fell off. I heard Garry behind me: 'run!' 

"So, I went on back on the belt, going like the clappers of hell. I'd say about halfway down there was a walkway, so I jumped off the belt, turned around and there was no sign whatsoever of Garry. There was no light, there was nothing at all." 

With the roaring of the water getting closer, Jake realised he had no time to go back. He just managed to make it back up the main drift before collapsing onto the ground. 

The water had stopped just behind him, flooding the tunnel right up to the roof. 

"It was like black ink," he says. 

The National Wales: Garry Jenkins' son AlexGarry Jenkins' son Alex

Garry Jenkins’ son Alex was 13 at the time. He’s now 23 and a student living in Bristol, and he is now keen to understand more about how his father died. 

"I know, deep within myself that this is something I want to do for me," he said. 

"It's like my sort of family legacy. Me, my father, my grandfather. If this is something I could take on my shoulders and push forward on my own, then it's something I will do." 

The HSE said its thoughts remain with the families "on this poignant anniversary". 

Trapped Underground: The Gleision Mine Disaster airs tonight, Wednesday, September 15 on BBC One Wales at 8pm and it will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer. 

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