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Families relive Gleision Colliery tragedy 10 years on

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It is a tragic day that will forever be etched in the memories of those who live and work in south Wales.

Four miners waved goodbye to their families and set off for work 10 years ago today to take part in what they thought would be ordinary routine blasting operation at Gleision Colliery.

Experienced miners Garry Jenkins, 39, David Powell, 50, Phillip Hill, 45, and Charles Breslin, 62, were all busy working at the pit in Cilybebyll near Pontardawe, 90m underground on September 15, 2011, but they had no idea of the unthinkable events that were about to unfold.

The men were working underground together with pit manager Malcolm Fyfield, Nigel Evans, and Jake Wyatt. They worked on a conveyor belt bringing coal out of the mine. Mr Jenkins was working with Mr Wyatt while the four other men were working in a 40m stall that was just 2.6ft high.

READ MORE: The tragedy at Gleision Colliery retold

(from the left) Garry Jenkins, 39, Phillip Hill, 45, David Powell, 50, and Charles Breslin, 62, the four miners that died following an accident at Gleision Colliery

Disaster struck when the tunnel they were working in began filling up with water. The miners and Mr Fyfield blasted through to flooded old workings causing 650,000 gallons of water to gush into the mine.

The emergency services were called to the colliery at 9.20am. The mission involved Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service and South Wales Police as well as Mines Rescue units from across Wales and the UK made up of 200 rescuers.

Mr Wyatt worked as a fitter in the mine which he described as a "dirty, dangerous hole." He spoke to BBC Wales Investigates for their documentary Trapped Underground: The Gleision Mining Disaster, which airs tonight.

Nigel Evans and Jake Wyatt (Image: BBC)

He told the show: "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 Mr Wyatt 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 said.

Mr Evans told the show: "I jumped over the belt. My helmet came off so I couldn't see anything. I grabbed my helmet, put it back on, and just ran. I just thought: 'No-one is coming out of that."

The rescue operation was a deeply stressful time for the loved ones of those missing underground (Image: Wales News Service)

Members of the miners' families congregated at Rhos Community Centre to await news about their loved ones. Mr Jenkins' son Alex was at Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera when he heard about the incident.

He said: "I was in a Welsh class. I could see the mountain where it all happened. I left the class for five minutes, I can't remember why. I had a text asking me what mine my father worked in. That's when I guessed something was wrong.

"We could see the helicopters flying towards the mountain. Then my mother came to the school and told me something had happened at the mine."

Alex Jenkins, son of Garry Jenkins (Image: BBC)

Mr Powell's wife Lynette Powell told the show: "I can remember this exact time - 9.25am. I can remember it was a beautiful day so then I thought I'd peg the clothes out. I could see the helicopter coming in front of me and it was going down and down and down. I screamed."

Lynette Powell (Image: BBC)

Mr Breslin's wife Mavis Breslin said: "That day of the disaster I was staining the decking and later on in the afternoon my brother-in-law said Charles had been trapped underground so I threw the paint equipment up in the air and I drove to Rhos Community Centre. Charles was as strong as an ox and could swim like a fish so if anybody could have got them out it would have been him. I really thought they would have got out."

Mavis Breslin (Image: BBC)

Mr Wyatt and Mr Evans managed to escape and despite being just yards from the blast Mr Fyfield also managed to get out. The four miners remained trapped 300ft below the surface and a rescue mission was launched in an attempt to save them. An ambulance took Mr Fyfield away to hospital while Mr Evans and Mr Wyatt hung around to do whatever they could to help and be part of the rescue effort.

Mr Evans told the show: "[Mr Fyfield] was in total shock. He was bleeding from his head as well - he had been roughed about a bit.

"We were all hoping for them to come home and come out but we sort of knew."

Friends and family of the miners kept vigil at the community centre as they waited for news of their loved ones overnight. Specialist divers went into the mine but had to abandon their efforts after about 30m. Rescuers had hoped the divers could assess the situation before all the water had been pumped out but debris had made the water murky.

The rescue mission resumed at 4.20am on September 16 and fresh teams were drafted in to replace colleagues who had been working non-stop for 12 hours. But four hours later the first body was discovered and was subsequently identified as Garry Jenkins.

"I'll never forget my grandmother bursting into tears on the spot," Mr Jenkins' son, Alex, who was 13 at the time, told the BBC.

"I was just sat there. I didn't shed a tear. I didn't know how to feel. I'll never forget seeing my grandfather break down as well. When I saw them two break down I knew: 'Okay, something has actually happened here. There's a tangible - my father has gone.' That's when the pain really really set in."

Later that afternoon the body of David Powell was found. At 3.10pm a third body was discovered and was later identified to be Phillip Hill and at 6pm the body of Charles Breslin was found. "I thought the bottom of my world had fallen out," Mrs Breslin said.

Mrs Powell added: "I know I knew in my mind but you weren't set up for that - him being gone and out of our lives forever. Because he was the biggest part of our lives."

A fund was set up for the families of the four miners, which exceeded £1m.

The mine's manager Mr Fyfield and owners MNS Mining were found not guilty of manslaughter charges - gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter respectively - following a three-month trial in 2014. After the trial the acting coroner for Swansea decided not to hold a full inquest into the four men's deaths.

Malcolm Fyfield with his wife arriving at Swansea Crown Court

A subsequent "factual report", published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 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 Maria 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 said 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.

Mr Wyatt said 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 told the show.

Mr Evans added: "As it stands now nobody's been blamed. Somebody must take responsibility for four bodies, four men, four lives, you know?"

Mrs Powell said all she has is a temporary death certificate. She said: "That is no closure for me. I haven't got an inquest. Not only for me, for all the families."

Time Line

The Gleision Colliery disaster

  1. September 15, 2011 - 9.21am

    A blast at the Gleision Colliery causes water to rapidly fill a tunnel where miners are working. Garry Jenkins, David Powell, Phillip Hill and Charles Breslin become trapped underground.

  2. September 15, 2011 - 9.25am

    The emergency services including South Wales Police and Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service are called to the colliery.

  3. September 15, 2011 - 3pm

    Rescue mission involving 200 people including firefighters, police, and members of the Mines Rescue Service is under way.

  4. September 16, 2011 - 4.20am

    Fresh rescue teams are brought in to relieve colleagues who have worked for at least 12 hours non-stop.

  5. September 16, 2011 - 8.30am

    The body of Garry Jenkins is discovered and later identified.

  6. September 16, 2011 - 1.30pm

    The body of David Powell is discovered and later identified.

  7. September 16, 2011 - 3.10pm

    The body of Phillip Hill is discovered and later identified.

  8. September 16, 2011 - 6pm

    The body of Charles Breslin is discovered and later identified.

  9. September 16, 2011

    Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan announces inquiry to be led by South Wales Police and HSE.

  10. September 17, 2011

    HSE and Wales Office issue statement saying it is too early to determine cause of disaster.

  11. October 18, 2011

    Mine manager Malcolm Fyfield arrested by South Wales Police on suspicion of manslaughter by gross negligence.

  12. January 13, 2013

    Malcom Fyflied and mineowners MNS Mining LTD charged with four counts of manslaughter by gross negligence.

  13. March 24, 2014

    Trial of Malcolm Fyfield and MNS Mining LTD begins at Swansea Crown Court.

  14. June 19, 2014

    Malcolm Fyfield and MNS Mining LTD found not guilty of all counts of manslaughter by gross negligence.

  15. July 6, 2015

    HSE publishes report of findings from investigation into Gleision Colliery disaster.

And Mrs Breslin 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, Ms Seage, who said: "There's still so many unanswered questions and the only way to get them answered is re-open 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."

Garry Jenkins' son Alex added: "I know, deep within myself, that this is something I want to do for me.

"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 Heath and Safety Executive said it's thoughts remained with the families "on this poignant anniversary".

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

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