I keep straining my ears to hear a sound.
Maybe someone is digging underground,
or have they given up and all gone home to bed,
thinking those who once existed must be dead.
“New York Mining Disaster 1941″ (Barry Gibb / Robin Gibb)
I look in awe as a combined marvel of engineering, solidarity and hope saved the lives of 33 miners in Chile in the last 24 hours; in awe of the strength and determination of the men, their families and those who worked to free them – whether they were in hard hats, NASA or in government. Like the rest of the world, I was gripped by this story; but as I watched Fenix II being tested, I was gripped with fear. Not hope. Not anticipation. So when I saw the son of the first miner to surface, as I watched his face, I saw anxiety, not excitement, and when he sobbed uncontrollably as his father emerged from the capsule, so did I. In that moment I was connected with a small child I will never know and more in touch with my own frailties than I have been in a long time. I have travelled half the world. I have stood on ground where crimes against humanity have been committed; but if grief and suffering has a place and a name, it is a small town in Wales: Aberfan.
I grew up in a mining village near Newcastle; up until the 1980s when the coal companies decided the land was worth more than the coal, a string of them dotting the coast south of the Hunter River; communities which sprung up around the pits since John Shortland discovered a rich seam of the black stuff in the late 18th century. All of my adult male relatives worked in coal mines, including my father. As a child, I heard the pit whistle signal the change of shift, and if my dad was on days he would knock off at 2pm and be in the bowlo by 3. If he worked a ‘doubler’ he was gone for 16 hours. He used to do a double shift at least once a week until he retired, buggered from 35 years of slaving his guts out. I also knew the story of Aberfan.
When you mine coal, you take out the black stuff, but also tonnes of useless stuff – ‘slag’. At the Merthyr Vale colliery, the slag heaps or ‘tips’ were monstrous. Fifty years of crud dumped on the side of a mountain. The mountain came with mountain springs. Some of the tips were laid directly over the springs. Aberfan’s primary school lay directly below the mountain – and the slag heaps. At 9.15am on Friday, 21 October 1966, one of the slag heaps gave way. It had been raining for days. Combined with the underground springs, the rain turned 150,000 cubic metres of slag and rock into a torrent of mud. Most of it stopped at the foot of the mountain, but as the little children of Aberfan returned to class that Friday morning, the last day of term, 40,000 cubic metres of this filth smashed its way into town, 12 metres deep. After destroying terraced houses on the way, it hit the school, destroying buildings and filling the classrooms with thick mud and rubble up to 10 metres deep. There was an almighty roar, then silence. 144 people choked, had their skulls caved in or were crushed by the impact. 116 of the victims were aged between 7 and 10 years old. 104 (or almost half of the students) died at the school. The mothers and fathers of Aberfan clawed at the mud with their bare hands, searching for the teachers and children who were dying metres below their despair. Hundreds of people drove to the village to help the rescue; as did police and trained rescue teams. No survivors were found after 11am. It took another week for 2,000 emergency services workers and volunteers, some working for more than 24 hours straight, to recover all of the bodies from their earth. Most of the victims were buried at a joint funeral at the local cemetery.
I went to Aberfan in 1996 – 30 years later. I was living in Cardiff, and I wanted to see for myself the town I had only seen on a documentary in primary school – which scared the living daylights out of me as there was a (small) slag heap across the road from my grandparents’ house. The only way I can describe walking the streets to pay my respects at the cemetery is to imagine getting an inside look at the mind of a person living with post-traumatic stress disorder. A town that can’t rest while the memory of that day remains fresh; streets and shops and pubs populated by old people and people in their 20s (the birthrate went up after the disaster) and a generation missing, 35-45 year old adults, either lying in the graveyard or broken by the horror of that day. A town split between families whose children survived (145) and those whose lives were taken in 1966, people who could not bear to see the living children play; and so guilt beset grief. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has found that more than 50 per cent of survivors suffered PTSD, and as of 2000, 82 per cent of those had not recovered; they were more than three times as likely to develop lifetime PTSD than a comparative cohort of life-threatening trauma victims.
So, on such an uplifting day, I am writing in honour of the thousands who risk their lives everyday by going underground. I have seen widows; known fatherless children; watched as my Dad’s mates went from pulling ‘doublers’ to being pushed in a wheelchair, their backs broken in roof falls. When John Lennon’s 70th birthday was remembered around the world, all I could think of was the morning after my 8th birthday party – the day of Lennon’s assassination and the day they came to tell my Dad that his mate Ray Jones was dead. When we grew up, my brother did his mine entrance exam. Our Dad let him do it but flatly refused to allow him to go underground. ‘Too bloody dangerous’ were his first, and only words on the subject, even though my brother could have worked at his pit. Instead, my brother became the rescuer of men; as a senior crewman on Westpac Rescue Helicopter he saved the lives of the sailors on the Pasha Bulker and took a boy I had gone to school with to Royal North Shore spinal unit after he was injured in a mining accident.
Safety standards worldwide have improved, but approximately 6,000 miners die in China each year (it’s a guesstimate; most of the accidents occur at small, pretty much illegal mines, I don’t think the government actually knows the true figure). As press secretary to a former Minister for Mineral Resources, I have been underground – he insisted that all of us know what it felt like for the people who worked the black seam (including the receptionist, who fell on her arse trying to cross a longwall excavation). There’s a hum, dim light, water, and kilometres of roads. I’ve also been woken up in the early hours of the morning to be notified of accidents; on one day, Friday 28 May three separate and tragic incidents resulted in the deaths of two young miners and serious injury to another. James Adams Jnr of Muswellbrook died in an incident at Dartbrook colliery, north of Muswellbrook. Paul Strong of Pelaw Main died in an incident at Mount Thorley open-cut mine, near Singleton. The Government was in the midst of overhauling mine safety legislation and conducted a review, but they were two new names to add to the the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall in Aberdare, which commemorates each of the 1,795 miners killed on the northern coalfields since the first lease was granted in 1801. To put the Hunter region’s loss in perspective, that is three times the number of soldiers Australia lost in the Vietnam War. I celebrate the success of the Chile mine rescue, but I honour the names on The Jim Comerford Memorial Wall. It was paid for by my Dad’s old union, the Northern District Branch of the United Mineworkers and named after the Rothbury Riot survivor and union stalwart. The records show that the youngest was 11-year-old Robert Irving, who was killed at the Co-operative Colliery at Plattsburgh on February 16, 1883, when he was “run over by loaded skips”. The oldest fatality on record was 73-year-old Frederick Charles Roose, who was killed at Waratah Colliery by a “fall of stone”. I am relieved beyond measure that 33 lives have been saved as the world watched on, but I am mindful of those who are subject to these dangers every moment of their working lives, and the graves of Aberfan.
“New York Mining Disaster, 1941″ was inspired by the Aberfan disaster.
Prof Iain McLain (2007): Aberfan: no end of a lesson http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-52.html
Royal College of Psychiatrists (2000) Over 30 years on – Aberfan survivors still suffering post-traumatic stress disorder http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/press/pressreleasearchive/pr160.aspx
NSW Parliament Hansard: http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/Prod/parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LA20040601005