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Today in history... disaster strikes at Six Bells

12:00am | & News

Tragedy struck a South Wales mining community on June 28th 1960, when 45 men were killed in an underground gas explosion at the Six Bells Colliery in Abertillery, Monmouthshire.

Initial reports were that 37 men had been killed when a spark, probably from a falling stone, ignited a large build-up of coal gas, known as 'firedamp'. Another eight miners were feared trapped underground and rescue teams assembled in a bid to save them. However, the eight men – including two fathers each with two sons working alongside them – were later found dead.

The explosion had released lethal concentrations of deadly carbon monoxide gas so that anyone who breathed it would have rapidly fallen unconscious and died within minutes. The lingering gas, combined with roof collapses, hampered the rescuers' progress. 

The loss of 45 men was deeply felt in the close-knit Welsh mining community of Abertillery, but it could have been much worse. The explosion happened in the West District of the mine, killing 45 out of the 48 men working there. However, had it not been for maintenance work being carried out in a nearby part of the mine, another 125 men could have been working there.

There had been 700 men working underground in the 70-year-old pit when the explosion happened. One of them, Harold Legge, told reporters he had been about half-a-mile from the coal face when he heard a loud roar and saw a "terrific flash" at around 10-45am.

"I had a job to breathe and I stumbled to the pit bottom through the coal dust," said Mr Legge. "Afterwards I discovered there was a young man killed 20 yards away."

Most of the 1,300 miners employed at the colliery were from Abertillery and several of the dead were from the same small street. Mercifully, the Six Bells tragedy was one of the last big mining disasters in the UK as the industry gradually fell into decline.

As part of the National Coal Board's move to 'super-pits' in the 1970s Six Bells was integrated with Marine Colliery at Cwm, but the whole complex was shut down by British Coal in 1988.

Now the former colliery site has been landscaped and renamed Parc Arael Griffin, with its own visitor centre, restaurant, conference facility and "valleys mining town experience". In 2010 a 66ft-high statue called "The Guardian" (pictured) was erected near the site of the old colliery to commemorate the 1960 disaster and dedicated to "all mining communities wherever they may be".

Designed and created by artist Sebastien Boyesen, the statue is made from more than 200,000 horizontal strips of special weathering steel and stands on a sandstone plinth. Around 400 relatives of the men killed in the 1960 disaster were among the 7,500 people to attend the unveiling and dedication of the statue, which has been described as Wales' answer to the Angel of the North.

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