THE morning of June 28, 1960, is a day many across the Gwent valleys will never forget. MARTIN WADE recalls the Six Bells colliery disaster

IN what was Gwent’s last colliery disaster, 45 miners were killed when an explosion tore through the Arael Griffin colliery.

The first report in the Argus, on June 28, told how the blast “killed at least two” and that rescue workers were desperately trying to reach forty men believed to be trapped below ground.

The rescuers had divided into two teams with one making the roof safe and the other attempting to break through the wall of rock which imprisoned the men.

Two men had been rescued by that point, they were Clifford Lewis of Nantyglo and Michael Purnell of Abertillery. Both were taken to Abertillery and District Hospital. Lewis was later discharged but Purnell was detained with severe burns.

We learned hundreds of men, women and children stood outside the colliery waiting for news, their faces a sea of anguish.

This anguish was shared by workers still above ground. An official from the colliery told the Argus: “It’s not rock [falls] that are worrying me - it’s carbon monoxide from the explosion.”

The explosion was reported to have happened in an older part of the colliery, the ‘W’ vein.

Harold Legge who escaped told the Argus: “I was about half a mile from the coalface. I heard a roar which it is a job to describe.

“There was a flash across my eyes and I couldn’t see for dust, I had a job to breathe and I stumbled to the pit bottom through the dust.

“Afterwards I discovered there was a man killed twenty yards from me.”

The Argus reported “grave fears are entertained” for the safety of the other men who were trapped by the roof fall following the explosion.

One miner who had returned from the scene of the explosion echoed these fears: “I don’t think there is any hope for the men at all” he said. “There has been a big fall of roof and it may be a long job getting them out.”

Those fears were to be realised when the death toll climbed to 45. The grim trade upon which South Wales depended had claimed more mine workers.

The spot where the explosion happened is near where the underground workings ran close to those of Marine Colliery in Cwm, where a disaster occurred 30 years before.

William Evans, a miner of 42 years, helped bring bodies out of the devastated pit. He was working in another area of the colliery when the explosion happened. “It was about 10.30am that we stopped work to have some food. About 15 minutes later we were all sitting together when we felt a gush of wind and there was a lot of dust.

“A young lad came along and asked us to leave everything, to get blankets and stretchers and go down to ‘W’ district where there had been an accident.

Another rescue worker told how some of the men were so badly burned that it was difficult to identify the bodies. Colin Rees of Abertillery told how: “The whole area was blasted. It was a terrible sight.”

Readers were told the steel girders which supported the roof had been twisted and knocked sideways like a stack of cards.

Miracles and tragedy happened together. The mother of survivor Michael Purnell explained how he was sitting having something to eat with another miner Dennis Lane. “The lights went out and Dennis went to see what had happened. As he did so the blast hit him and he was thrown back on top of Michael.”

She said that Michael believed that by saving his life Dennis was killed himself.

Yet this catastrophe could have been worse. Normally there would have been 123 men working in the ‘W’ district where the explosion happened.

The dead were from a maintenance team who had gone down on the morning shift to carry out repairs.

The inquest into the deaths opened just two days after the disaster. We were told how the courtroom in Abertillery filled with “grim-faced, black-tied men”.

The fathers, sons, relatives and friends of those killed were told by the coroner that “the whole nation feels for the relatives of the victims in this moment of tragic sadness.”

An appeal to help the victims’ families of the disaster with donations included £2,500 given by the News of the World, while Marks and Spencers had given £500.

All victims’ families suffered, but the blows inflicted on the Morgan family of Llanhilleth were worse than most. Father and son Ray, 44 and Colin, 22, both died in the blast. A neighbour told the Argus: “They were more like brothers - they shared everything.” Colin had only been married “a few months”.

Vernon Griffiths, 33 and his son Clive, 18, of Brynithel died as did William Partridge, 45 and son Anthony Partridge, 20.

Decades later, long after the colliery had closed and mining had vanished from the Gwent valleys, hundreds of people gathered on a beautiful sunny June day to remember the victims of the disaster.

Those hundreds came in 2010 also to see the unveiling of a memorial to the dead which stands in the valley where those miners perished.

The Guardian statue was erected for the 50th anniversary of the tragedy after £100,000 funding was secured.

The graceful figure is of a miner and towers above Six Bells. With arms outstretched he gazes benignly over the once stricken village on a plinth upon which the names of the dead are inscribed.

The statue was sculpted by Sebastien Boyesen, who also commissioned the Chartist Man in Blackwood and many other Gwent artworks.

On the day the statue was unveiled relatives of those who died came to see their kin remembered.

Jim Watkins was working that day and narrowly avoided the blast. He spoke on the day of the unveiling. He was 29-years-old at the time of the disaster and had been working as an electrician there for 11 years.

“I was supposed to go to ‘W’ seam, but I got a message to go to ‘H’ which was about three quarters of a mile in the opposite direction” he recalled.

“And although it’s many years ago, it feels like yesterday to me - so I turned to Dennis, he was leaning on an empty dram. We both said ‘see you’ and of course I never saw him or any of them again.”

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.”

He said although the memorial was a wonderful thing, he said more important was that people remembered and came to the commemorative services.

Thomas George Crandon was 46 and working at the colliery moving machinery up to the surface of the mine. He had been working down the mines since the age of 14.

His son Don remembered the day of the disaster: “I went to the colliery where a huge crowd was gathering and it was then I was told my father wouldn’t be coming back up. I then had to go and tell my mother. She was devastated.”

“It affected everyone in the Valleys though whether they had families in the mines or not.”

He added: “My dad was a fabulous man who was constantly hard-working and always helping everyone. He never did a bad turn.

“It was hard to adjust and to get used to life after.”

Don said at the time of the unveiling of the statue: “It means a lot - it means everything that they’ve finally been remembered.”

Mary Rees, wife of Frederick Rees, who died in the disaster said: “It should have been done years ago, but it is wonderful that they are finally being remembered.”

All archive pictures are by the then Argus chief photographer, Eric Greenfield.