Welsh mine tragedy: Inquiry after four Gleision deaths

Rescue workers at Gleision Colliery near Swansea, South Wales, on Friday The investigation will be begun by South Wales Police

An inquiry has been announced into the deaths of four miners in a flooded Swansea Valley colliery.

Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan said lessons had to be learned from the deaths of the men at the Gleision Colliery, near Pontardawe.

The bodies of Charles Breslin, 62, David Powell, 50, Garry Jenkins, 39, and Phillip Hill, 45, who all lived locally, were discovered on Friday.

Tragedy struck as they were working 90m (295ft) underground on Thursday.

Mrs Gillan said: "We must ensure we learn the lessons and find out what happened to these men."

Analysis

By Nick Servini, BBC Wales business correspondent

The Gleision Colliery employed eight people. It's thought to have produced a few hundred tonnes of coal a week.

The high quality anthracite coal mined here can be sold now for more than £200 a tonne, which has risen by around a third over the past three years.

Mining union officials say although there have been problems with water at the pit in the past, they say that is not out of the ordinary for a mine of this size.

Industry veterans have also spoken of the work being done in small pits of this kind as being relatively unchanged from the work done decades ago because tight spaces make it impossible to get large machinery to the coalface.

However they also said there would still be significant improvements in areas like ventilation inside the shafts.

Phil White, a former director of Tower Colliery, the last deep pit in Wales before it closed, said no matter how much you improve safety "when you are in the bowels of the earth anything can happen".

The events in the Swansea valley have acted as a reminder of an industry which was once dominant in Wales, as well as a stark reminder of the inevitable dangers that accompany it.

She said the investigation will initially be led by South Wales Police before it is handed over to the Health and Safety Executive.

As the hopes of the miners' families ended on Friday evening with the announcement that the fourth body had been found, First Minister Carwyn Jones called for the focus of people's attention to be on supporting them in their grief.

But Mr Jones also spoke of the need for an inquiry.

"Of course that has to be done," he said. "The time will come in the next few weeks to look at some kind of inquiry."

Mr Jones said the colliery had been well-regulated.

"As far as this mine is concerned it was inspected last year and the plans were up to date in June."

But he added that "mining is mining" and that Wales knew from its bitter history that even when safety was taken into account there was still loss of life.

Labour leader Ed Miliband also called for an official investigation into the incident.

"There must be an inquiry and lessons must be learnt," he said. "But in the coming days we must think about those men who have died, the bravery of people who work in the mines and the terrible sadness of their families."

"I want to send my deepest condolences to the families of those who have died. They will be feeling terrible grief," he said.

The investigation will look at exactly what happened, but mining experts said operating near old workings which contain water was always a hazard.

Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan Cheryl Gillan was among the politicians who attended the scene of the tragedy on Friday

David Seath, the secretary of the Mining Institute in Scotland and former head of the Mines Rescue Service, said he believed the men had no chance of escaping.

"I believe that the suddenness of the incident would have given them no chance to reach any area of safety. I think that whenever the water broke through into the workings it would be so quick that the people would be overcome almost instantaneously."

Neath Port Talbot council leader Ali Thomas paid tribute to the four miners, two of whom were his former colleagues.

Speaking outside Rhos Community Centre, where loved ones of the dead men had spent hours anxiously waiting for news of them, he said: "There were two types of miners - some are good and some are useless. Charlie and Phillip were definitely in the good mould.

"They were hard-working and always pleasant and polite to be around."

Rescue effort

Mr Thomas added: "All the men who died here were important members of the community. They were someone's sons, fathers and grandfathers."

Start Quote

All the men who died here were important members of the community. They were someone's sons, fathers and grandfathers”

End Quote Ali Thomas Neath Port Talbot council leader

Swansea City FC said they would hold a minute's silence before the team's home Premier League match against West Bromwich Albion.

The incident began at 09:15 BST on Thursday when emergency services were called to the drift mine at Cilybebyll.

It quickly emerged that three miners had managed to escape as flood water engulfed the mine's shaft when a retaining wall holding back a body of water underground failed.

One was taken to Morriston Hospital in Swansea, where he remained overnight, while the other two joined in as a large-scale rescue effort got under way.

Families of the miners gathered together a couple of miles away from the colliery as specialist rescue teams worked through the night to locate them.

Water that was blocking the miners' exit was pumped out of the mine, and oxygen pumped in.

But when divers moved into the mine early on Friday the body of the first miner was discovered at the bottom of the main shaft.

The second man was found at lunchtime, believed to be close to where he was working. Police confirmed during Friday that the remaining two bodies had been discovered.

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