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The Gresford Mine Disaster page 2

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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.

Again it was Mr. McGurk who gave me the clue to the more dread situation when he came up out of the blazing pit. "We know that there are 261 lamps missing," he said. And that sentence carried a frightful eloquence, because a miner, if he gets to the surface, does not leave his lamp and his "tally" (with which he has to check in at the lamp-room) underground. That Sunday night I challenged officials at the colliery company's offices. They still refused to admit the death-roll. Soon afterwards the admission was made, but so far as I know there has never been a satisfactory explanation of this shocking discrepancy in figures. And possibly there never will be.

It was on the Sunday night that the signal was given for the abandonment of all rescue work and the sealing of the mine. The decision was inevitable. The situation was hopeless. Further efforts would have only meant the imperilling of more lives.

The official announcement of the abandonment was in the following terms:

"The attempt to overcome the fire in the main road has gone on continuously since yesterday, but in spite of very strenuous efforts, and although some progress has been made in this road, the fire has got a further hold in a road to the right through which it was hoped access would have been got to any possible survivors. To-day several explosions have occurred, and this afternoon they became more frequent and closer to where the men were working on the fire. The return air in both main returns is carrying carbon monoxide in dangerous quantity, and it is with great reluctance that all parties, the management, the representatives of the miners, and his Majesty's inspectors, have come to the conclusion that no person can possibly be alive in the workings. In these circumstances, and in view of the increasingly grave risk to the men engaged in combating the fire on the main road, it has been decided that it would not be right to expose these workers to such serious risk, and all persons have been withdrawn from the mine."

That was a hard decision to take, but it was the only wise one. And so ended more than two-score hours of gallant and noble rescue work that had gone on without a moment's respite. It had been an epic of courage and physical endurance outstanding even in the annals of British coal-mining, and it was an unforgettable scene when the rescue parties came to the surface for the last time.

The dreadful bell (now still more dreadful) clanged out its message every few minutes to signalise that the cage was coming up. Out of it at the end of its uprush journeys stepped the little groups of blackened and sweat-running heroes with their respirators and their lamps. There was an eloquent difference in their demeanour compared with what it had been when they had come up before. They did not now run to the clothing hut, and they were not passed by running parties coming to take their places. Instead they walked slowly and dejectedly away, with bowed heads, and saying not a word. They had failed, and the fact that they had failed gloriously where no human being could have succeeded made no difference to them. They were sick at heart. Some were inclined to be a little rebellious. With quite unconscious bravery they would have gone on facing the perils of underground fire, roof falls, and more explosions (three more actually did take place during the rescue operations) until they in their turn dropped, or were buried, or burned. But after a little reflection they realised that the order they had been given was a right and proper one. The only one.

So they had a hurried wash, put on their coats and trousers, and cycled home to supper. Such is the way of pit disasters and the seldom-sung heroism that lies behind them.

And while they were having their supper the work of sealing up the pit was carried out. The original idea was to seal the blazing workings down below. It was afterwards decided that in the interests of safety the sealing must be at the top of the shaft. So the skilled men who had been waiting were brought into action. Great girders were placed over the pit mouth, brickwork built around them, and sandbags piled around the brickwork. And still men, women and children stood silently around this great closed tomb refusing to believe that it held only death.

There were amazing escapes when the disaster occurred. One man climbed 200 feet through an airshaft two feet wide, and then insisted on joining a rescue party. Another led a little party of four back to life and chanced his own life time and again by going back to help one or two who stumbled in the gas-laden darkness.

The first man to be brought out alive told this story at the time:

"There were about six of us, about 300 yards from the clutch, laughing and talking. Suddenly there was a gust of wind. An elderly fellow came running up and said, 'You had better get your clothes on and get out of here.' About twenty other fellows joined us, and we started making our way to the pit bottom. We got to the end of the wind road and then we began to meet gas. All of us fanned hard with our shirts. The gas was getting in our eyes, but we had to face it. We took turns in leading so that every one would have to take the same risk. Then we began to meet falls and we had to scramble over them. I thought the twenty fellows who had joined us were following us. I looked round, but I could not see them. I do not know what happened to them. The gas was getting thicker and choking us, but we kept on fanning, and we got through to the pit bottom."

Another man described how a little party groped its way through the darkness until there came a spot where the air was clearer. "Then we found our progress prevented by a tremendous fall," he said. "Our only hope of escape was about two feet square, and we managed to crawl through it without causing a further fall which would have cut off others."

And there were other amazing deeds. One of the first rescue parties consisted of five men. Two of them returned alive, and one owed his life to the other. The one fell. The other waited until the very last second, even took his respirator off in the poisoned air, and succeeded in dragging his unconscious mate to safety.

Some rescuers had the soles of their boots burned and their feet blistered on the fire-wracked underground roadway. Others who stumbled and put out their hands to save themselves had their fingers scorched. "You know what it is like to toast something before a fire," said one man simply. "Your hand gets too hot to hold the fork any longer. Well, in Gresford pit at this moment your whole body is like that."

There was the inquest on the few battered bodies that had been recovered, and then gradually the scores of blinds that had been drawn behind the windows of tragically numerous near-by cottages were raised. Because, although the women were widowed and the children made fatherless they still had to go on living.

A great relief fund. An inquiry. Police-court proceedings. These followed, but it is not my purpose to deal with them here.

Instead, step forward for about six months from the time of the disaster to the tale of equally heroic things. It was early in March, 1935, that highly-trained rescue teams were standing by, waiting to go down into the great tomb from which air samples had been taken for many wearying weeks and tested by experts.

I was back at the scene of the disaster and I watched these men passing through the final course of their training and submitting themselves to decisive medical tests. Wearing their respirators they worked in a chamber at the Rescue Training Centre at Wrexham, in which the temperature was brought up to eighty degrees Fahrenheit. It was a temperature which, the experts thought, was higher than that likely to be encountered at the bottom of the pit.

The chamber was filled with sulphur fumes, and for two hours at a stretch these men toiled away in the poisonous darkness with timber, sandbags, and brickwork in specially-constructed galleries. They dealt with artificial "falls," made as nearly like the real thing as possible, built "stoppings" and tore others down.

All the time, with their mouths covered with rubber pads connected with the tubes through which they breathed oxygen, and with their noses clamped so that they could not take in any of the foul air, they had to keep an eye on the tell-tale dials of their outfits. These dials gave them warning when their oxygen supply was running low.

They were drilled in a system of distress signals. Each man had a high-pitched motor-cycle horn attached to his apparatus so that signals might be given and answered along the single file of his rescue team. The code was:

Distress - one hoot.

Halt - two hoots.

Retire - three hoots.

Advance - four hoots.

Call attention - five hoots.

No answer meant "Help wanted," and the signalling between the men at the bottom of the pit and those at the surface was arranged by a system of hammers and gongs. Each man's outfit weighed about 40 lbs. Each had been prepared to work for about two hours down below and then to be hauled to the surface to make a report. There were five teams of five men each. And four spare men.

"Every man is keen and anxious to be the first down," said Sir Henry Walker, the Chief Inspector of Mines. He himself is a brave, if gruff, old man, and on the dreadful September Sunday before the pit was sealed he made several descents into its raging horrors. "They are great lads," he added, "and we take off our hats to them for their courage and fearlessness." So it was that these twenty-nine men, trained to the moment, and, as Sir Henry said, "fit as fleas," went quietly to their little homes on that March evening to sleep before their ordeal of the morning.

Three of the teams made seven descents the following day, and some of the men forced their way along 230 yards of the main road that lay nearly half a mile deep. They all came safely out. One of them said the conditions were cooler than they had been at the chamber at the Training Centre. Another said that the gas did not affect his eyes and that he had not to wear goggles. They and the experts agreed that the conditions were better than they had expected to find, and they took no notice of an old miner who was standing by and listening, and who muttered: "Wait till they get along farther."

The captain of the first team to go down said this: "We descended the shaft to examine the 'pump inset,' and finding it all right we returned to the surface and reported." Just that.

Then he described, very simply, how two of the men who had remained in the air-lock at the pithead came with him in the cage instead of two others. "We made a second descent," he said, "and Mr. Gollinson, Inspector of Mines, accompanied us. We went down to 'meetings' (the point where the descending and ascending cages pass each other), fixed that point definitely, and signalled ' Seven ' to indicate this to the winding-engine man."

The first descent to the "pump inset" meant that they had gone down to see that the dam which had been built something like 500 feet down to prevent water pouring into the shaft was working efficiently. The second descent, to the "meetings," was to ascertain the exactness of that point, for it was of the utmost importance that the man who controlled the movement of the rising and falling cages should know it.

The captain of the second team that went down came up to report some obstruction. So he and his team went down in the other cage, and this is what he said when he came up: "There was water to the level of the landing. The bottom of the cage went into it and made a bit of a noise, but it was quite safe."

Would any dramatist attempt to tell a story as simply? Water. The bottom of the cage went into it. It made "a bit of a noise" but was safe.

As the evening drew on these men of the rescue teams, seemingly unconscious of the cool gallantry of their day's work, just turned up their coat collars, pulled down the peaks of their caps, and trudged away home to rest in preparation for further exploration the following morning. They had taken their lives in their hands but were still prepared to do so again.

They kept going down, recovering documents, building "stoppings" of timber, sandbags and brickwork, establishing air bases, and working gradually nearer to the scene of the disaster. Everything had to be done slowly and cautiously and then, in a month's time, it was possible for men to go down the shaft without respirators.

Soon after this an examination showed that in some parts of the mine many tons of rock had been torn from the roof and sides. Tubs had been hurled in all directions. There were heaps of wreckage. Enormous quantities of water had accumulated. The mine then was reported to be cool, but in the Dennis Pit (as that part of the mine where the explosion occurred is known) there was still the sound of rushing water. At that time it was computed that 20,000,000 gallons of water had entered since the pumps were stopped.

No fewer than 254 bodies were still there in this dark, water-logged, wrecked underground place of torment.

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