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The Gresford Mine Disaster


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At about half-past two on the morning of Saturday, September 22, 1934, there was a dreadful rumbling more than half a mile deep in the earth under Gresford. And soon after that there were 264 dead men. Blown to pieces, crushed by roof falls, suffocated, or cruelly burned to death in a raging inferno of fire that burst out with savage intensity immediately after the explosion.

Such is the bare outline of the Gresford colliery disaster that shocked the world that autumn week-end.

Let the outline begin to be filled in two days afterwards. There had been almost indescribable scenes all through the Saturday, all through Saturday night, all through Sunday. And then, when the sun was setting on that Sunday evening the tragic but inevitable signal was given that the rescue parties must be brought up quickly, that the mine, still burning furiously, must be sealed, that 254 bodies must be left where life had been so suddenly snatched from them (ten had been brought up). And more than two and a half years later, practically all of them were still lying there.

So to nine o'clock on the Monday morning, and the beginning of the filling in of the outline. The scene was a little village school, a mile or so from the colliery.

There was no- -romping or playing as the children came along. There were, I suppose, about 150 of them. Little girls and boys. Spotlessly clean. But quiet - very quiet. And with wide, wondering eyes.

The headmaster - a kindly, understanding, and brokenhearted man - let these children marshal themselves at their desks. Then he asked those whose fathers were at the bottom of the Dennis Deep seam (that portion of the pit in which the tragedy had occurred) to stand up.

It stopped one's breath to see them stand, looking at their schoolmaster with those wide-open, questioning eyes. Then he asked all those who had relatives still in the mine to stand. And you could have counted on your fingers those who still sat.

A woman teacher struck a chord on the school piano. And what do you think these children sang?

The hymn: "Fight the Good Fight."

The headmaster turned to me with a note almost of apology in his voice. "I'm afraid they can't sing very well this morning," he said.

That was the moment when I slunk out into the little lobby where these boys and girls had hung their hats and coats, because their bewildered eyes kept dry, and mine did not.

The outline was filling in.

I heard the last verse of the hymn trail away and when I went back into the classroom the headmaster was talking to these children and trying to console them.

As I re-entered he was quoting: "Blessed be they that mourn for they shall be..."

He paused, and the children themselves completed the sentence with the word, "Comforted."

Then the headmaster, trying to rid the minds of these small boys and girls of ghastly pictures, begged them not to believe gossip they might hear about men screaming in the pit, and about the noise of knockings on doors. He told them such gossip was untrue, and I believe that was so. No screamings for help were heard. No knockings. No signals. Nothing at all except the roar of the fire and the whistling of the belching smoke as it eddied about the underground passage-ways.

General belief was that the majority of the men were not killed by fire, and that those who survived the explosion for a few minutes passed quietly away as the gas overcame them. But no one really knows.

Go back now to the Saturday morning and the scenes that followed the rumbling that spelt death for so many.

There were more than 400 men in the pit, which lies about three miles out of Wrexham and near-by the Chester railway line. Many of them had arranged to work the Friday night shift because they wanted to see a football match on the Saturday afternoon. Those in one part of the mine were able to get out. Those in the other part are still there.

In a few minutes the alarm went round the countryside, and then followed one of the most epic stories of sheer, cold heroism that can ever have been enacted. First of all, many of the men who were safely up formed themselves into rescue parties and went down again. Other rescue parties dashed in the early-morning darkness from neighbouring collieries. Captains of rescue teams fitted their men with respirators. The winding gear kept working as the cage shot them down; and when they were brought up again, blackened, exhausted, and half-naked, other parties ran across the yards of the pithead to take their places. Three of the rescuers were killed.

This was the sort of thing they had to face. More than half a mile down, the scene of the original explosion lay nearly two miles away, and along some of this distance there was raging fire, gas, and falling roofs and sides.

Let Mr. John McGurk, the president of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners' Federation, give a glimpse of what it was like. He was one of a number of highly experienced men who (taking their lives in their hands) went down to investigate the conditions. He would be the last to be willingly labelled with heroism, for there were heroic deeds done by scores of men that week-end that have never been surpassed and seldom equalled.

I saw him come up - scorched and blackened. And this is what he said:

"We faced a living wall of flame. I looked along the road. It was like seeing the open jaws of a furnace. Towards it, stretched in an open line, passing fire extinguishers and sandbags hand-to-hand, the rescuers were at work, risking limbs - aye, and life itself - in a desperate effort to quench the leaping flames and reach their mates. And the fire was gaining.

"To reach it we had climbed through a hole piercing the masses of debris blocking the road - a hole no bigger than one man at a time could scrape through.

"By the time we returned, when the order was given to abandon the pit, the fire was licking at the sides of that only means of escape. The position was hopeless. Men were working there like heroes. Every minute endangered more lives. We faced the bitter alternative of withdrawing all men from the pit - faced it as the only course left, and with hearts aching with the message of despair it meant taking to the watchers above.

"None knew the danger more than the men working in the heat and smoke. Had they been permitted, they would have gone on working. It would have been criminal to have allowed them to do so."

Through all the havoc and the terror, Mr. McGurk said, men toiled in the consciousness of danger, and pit ponies, blessedly unaware of their peril, were gallantly hauling the tubs along such parts of the road as were passable, bringing loads of sand and extinguishers to the rescue parties.

"I saw one pony," he said, "lying dead in the road, half buried under a fall of roof. His days of toil in the mine were over.

"Such scenes live harshly in the memory. No one who saw it could forget the shattering evidence of the force of the explosion - heavy wagons derailed and smashed to matchwood, steel rails twisted like so much wire. All this, too, along the road hundreds of yards from where the men were trapped. Falls of roof had blocked the road. A return airway sent dense volumes of smoke rolling evilly along. I saw four doors which had been blown down. One had been torn clean off its hinges and flung through another door twenty yards away. Never in my experience of ten pit explosions have I known such havoc."

It is not my business in this book to go into the causes of the disaster or the mining lessons to be learned from it. Experts have wrangled over those things for months and probably will continue to do so for years.

But I would like to try to convey some idea of the awfulness of what a tragedy like Gresford means to those who can only wait and watch, until, when the black curtain of hopelessness finally descends on them, they can then only sink down into the depths of utter misery.

The colliery lies alongside a main road as well as by the railway. Only a hedge and two or three hundred yards of approaches separate the pithead and its buildings from the stream of traffic that passes between Wrexham and Chester.

For scores of hours after the explosion - through dawn, daylight, dusk, and night - men, women and children stood hardly moving and seldom speaking.

At intervals a bell clanged dully three times, and the hush, already unbearable, seemed to become deeper still. It was like the dreadful repetition of a funeral toll, and it went on for seemingly endless time. Actually it was merely the signal that a cage was bringing up a rescue party for rest and food, but it gruesomely completed the knowledge that one was standing at the scene of a vast and terrible burial. For two days and a night that awe-inspiring "one - two - three" was almost the only sound to break into a long and loaded silence. Occasionally there was the low murmur of voices or the purring of the engine of a motor-ambulance. Otherwise the silence continued.

The crowds stood for hour after hour, thinking neither of rest nor food, just waiting, watching, and eventually hardly hoping. There was little weeping, no fainting, no audible demonstration of the grief that had cruelly covered a whole community. They stood there, staring straight ahead, seeming to see nothing, but with a look of inexpressible hurt in their dry eyes - a dreadful look that made one turn away and long never to see such a thing again.

Through a bitterly cold night I moved quietly among them. They told me heart-breaking little stories of why they were there; and their halting, simple sentences etched out a terrifying picture of the smashed homes in which the echoes of the pit-head bell were being heard.

One little group I shall never forget. It was composed of two old men and a boy. One of the old men had given his lifetime to the mine, and that night his son had given his life. The cloth-capped father had had to cease work eighteen months before because of nystagmus. The tell-tale blue marks of the miner were across his forehead and around his eyes.

He just looked vacantly ahead, his dim eyes fixed on the winding-gear, the twitching corners of his mouth giving the only sign of his suffering. It was midnight. "Been waiting all day," he said. "My son is down there."

That was all. And he continued his vigil, standing straight as a rod and still staring in that dreadful way at the winding-gear.

By his side was a 14½-years-old boy, one of a family of nine. "My father is down there," he said, and then he broke. He made no sound, but the tears streamed down his face. Next to him was a little man in a bowler hat. "My son is down there," he said simply. That was the phrase they all used - "Down there." I can still see these three as I left them waiting there in the cold and the darkness - two old men thinking of their sons, and one young boy thinking of his father. But they were only typical of hundreds more.

There were other pithead scenes. The ambulance station was peopled by nurses ready for any task, but called on only to revive members of rescue gangs as they came to the surface. Packed round a black yard were fleets of ambulances. There were doctors, first-aid men, ministers of religion. Just waiting, because there was nothing else to do. Early on the Saturday morning the parsons of a number of denominations had come along to the pithead to pray in a drenching rain. And having prayed they set to work to fill sandbags. Then, like the rest, they could only wait.

The only men who could do anything were the rescue gangs, and they worked with a noble heroism that is beyond description. They came from miles around. Many of them dashed to the scene on their own account as soon as they heard of the disaster. The rest were brought in organised companies by neighbouring mine managers and other officials.

The fire-fighters were specially picked men. Only half a dozen at a time were allowed to go "down there." I met a number of them, and to speak with them was both an inspiration and a humiliation. They did not seem to think that they were doing anything remarkable. They just put on their respirators, took their lamps, and, wearing a pair of "shorts," went down into a blazing hell to see what could be done.

When they got to the flames there was strung out behind them a long line of volunteers passing up fire extinguishers and bags of sand, and passing down "the empties" from hand to hand. Backwards and forwards went this process along a great heroic human chain about the links of which coal rattled, smoke eddied, and death threatened at any moment.

As the respirators neared exhaustion point their wearers came up again, ran across the yard to preserve their sweating bodies from chill, and into a brick hut where a fire was burning, and clothes, hot drinks and food were waiting. Before they had reached there another team had trotted across the yard and were in the cage.

These rescue teams, like the gangs of untrained men who went down to help them, were, of course, all volunteers. Scores of these untrained men had escaped from the pit at the time of the explosion. With little spells of rest they insisted on going down again and again just in case there was a chance of saving somebody. I remember talking with one of them who said that he had "only been passing the stuff along to the rescue teams," that he did not get within a mile of the fire, and that he had "done nothing." His idea of doing nothing was that he was working while falls of coal were taking place round him and props were bending and breaking.

Another man I remember was a rescue-team man. He was scorched and exhausted. He had been within a few yards of the wall of flame and had stayed the official time-limit for his respirator. All he had to say was that he was "going down again presently."

That is the sort of stuff these men were made of. And that is the sort of stuff the men whose bodies are still "down there" were made of.

One amazing feature of the catastrophe was that for between forty and fifty hours the total of the dead was falsely and cruelly understated. All Saturday, all Saturday night, all Sunday, it was stated on behalf of the colliery - and reiterated again and again - that the death-roll was just over 100. The first official figure was 102. The still living miners did not believe it. Neither did scores of women who still hoped they were wives but knew by a dread instinct that they were widows.

The figure of 102 was given in the message that was sent by the Lord Lieutenant of the county of Denbighshire to the King, and His Majesty (King George V.) sent a gracious message of sympathy and sorrow still thinking that 102 (terrible as that number would have been) represented the total human toll.

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