THOUSANDS of Valleys residents gathered together yesterday to commemorate the 50 years since an explosion claimed the lives of 45 men in the Six Bells mining disaster. Ruth Mansfield reports.

MORE THAN 5,000 people packed out the Six Bells former colliery site yesterday to pay tribute to the 45 miners killed in an explosion there 50 years ago.

As the sun shone down, family, friends and Valleys residents honoured the victims of June 28, 1960 who died when the explosion ripped through the colliery, then known as Arreal Griffin, at 10.45am killing 45 of the 48 men who were working in the ‘W’ district of the Old Coal Seam.

Paying tribute to the men, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams led a moving memorial service, including a one minute silence and a reading of the names of the victims.

The crowds were then invited to lay flowers at the base of the 20 metres high ‘Guardian’ statue which has been placed at the site in memory of the dead.

The steel statue, which is the same height as the Angel of the North and the biggest statue in Gwent, depicts a lone miner standing on a plinth.

The statue of the miner, which is 12.6 metres high alone includes a two metres high head, the torso which measures 3.5 metres in width and the feet which are two metres in width. A total of 200 sheets of corten steel were used - equal to around 10 tonnes.

The name, age and hometown of each of the 45 victims is engraved on a steel band surrounding the plinth.

The final stage of fitting the arms onto the statue, which has been funded through £200,000 from Heads of the Valleys programme and other donations, is due to take place within the next few weeks.

Mair Sheen, of Six Bells Communities First, said: “Due to it being such a technical job putting the statue into place, we did not want to rush the job and so took the decision to put the arms on at a later date.”

She added: “I am absolutely delighted with the turnout today. The service was brilliant and it is just all about people coming together to pay tribute.”

Dr Rowan Williams said: “It was a very moving service and a wonderful tribute to the men. It was lovely to see all the people here.”

Bishop of Monmouth, Right Reverend Dominic Walker, Reverend Patrick Coleman of St John’s, Six Bells, and Reverend Olwen Clatworthy of Bethany Baptist Church also addressed the crowd while Six Bells councillor, Cllr Jim Watkins who worked in the Six Bells colliery at the time of the disaster also spoke.

He recalled how he had meant to be working in the ‘W’ district that day but was sent to work elsewhere in the mine instead.

He said: “I often think why did that happen and still don’t have an answer to this day but I am honoured to be here today.

“It is a wonderful monument but something that is even more special is that you all remembered and are here today. I thank you very much.”

Choirs from Cwm, Beaufort and Abertillery performed alongside Abertillery and District brass band. Hymns sang included ‘Bread of Heaven’ and ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’ as well as the Welsh national anthem.

Family and friends were moved by the service and statue, which was designed by Sebastien Boyesen.

Jim Smith, 69 of Llanhilleth lost his brother-in-law Royden James Edwards, 27, in the disaster.

He said: “I think it was a very, very moving service and the statue looks lovely with the view as well.

“I am surprised at how many people have come along.”

Peter Musto, 71, who worked in the Llanhilleth colliery at the time and knew miners who were killed said: “It affected everyone at the time and had a tremendous effect.”

Gloria Griffiths, 71, formerly of Cwmtillery and now living in Reading, also attended.

Her father Kenneth Webb was in the rescue team of the disaster.

She said: “Although he survived the disaster it affected him from then and he had a lot of lung problems. He died two years later at the age of 47.

“All he cared about at the time was helping the miners. This service and tribute has just been amazing.”

'Somebody was watching over me' - survivor

Six Bells councillor, Cllr Jim Watkins, of Richmond Road, was 29-years-old at the time of the disaster.

He had been working as an electrician there for 11 years and although he was due to go and work in the ‘W’ district that day, he received a message that he would be working in the ‘H’ district instead.

Working down the mine, Cllr Watkins said he did not hear anything at the time of the explosion but soon received a phone call telling him to make his way to the surface.

He said: “I was walking the three quarters of a mile to the bottom of the pit just thinking about what it could be.”

As he got to the surface, he then saw the crowds of families starting to gather.

He said: “They then started bringing bodies up from the pit. It was a shock when I found out what had happened.

Despite this though, Cllr Watkins was back down the pit the next day. He has attended a memorial service at St John’s Church every year since.

He said: “Little did I know that by going to ‘H’ district I was saving my life that day. Somebody must have been watching over me.”

Constable tells of taking disaster call

Keith Edwards, 80, of Park Road, Newbridge, was the police constable on duty at the time of the explosion and answered the emergency call made.

Mr Edwards, who worked with the police from 1950 until 1981, answered the call made by the manager’s secretary from the colliery.

He said: “I picked up the call and she said there had been an explosion and she needed to speak to the duty inspector.”

After hearing what had happened, Mr Edwards then carried out the role of divisional driver picking up miner rescue teams from collieries including Llanhilleth and taking the teams to Six Bells. Each team had between four and six men.

A few days later, Mr Edwards then had to take statements from family members who had just identified their loved ones.

He said: “It was hard and was a shock as we learnt more and more the extent of what had happened.

“It was the biggest job in my career and was a once in a lifetime thing.”