The recent tragedies which caused the deaths of four miners at the Gleision Colliery near Cilybebyll, Pontardawe, and one miner at Kellingley, North Yorkshire, were a reminder that there are still UK mines producing coal and that men risk their lives to bring that coal to the surface.
Some of us will remember the Aberfan disaster in which a colliery spoil tip collapsed causing a landslide which buried a Primary School, killing 116 children. This was an unusual sort of mining disaster. The ‘usual’ kind involved the men who worked underground. Mining is safer now that it once was and there are far fewer working mines than there were 60 years ago. Over the course of 65 years from 1844, there were 16 separate incidents that caused loss of life – that’s one every four years. 918 men lost their lives in those accidents, all except two incidents having been caused by gas explosions. These statistics are not relating to national mining disasters, but are only those that took place in the Rhondda Valley coalfield.
While the UK coal mining industry is much smaller than it was, coal continues to be mined in large quantities elsewhere. China, the largest coal producer in the world, has 5 million workers in the industry. It also has the highest number of deaths. In 2006 in China, 4,749 miners died in thousands of separate accidents.
The reality is that working underground, in a cramped and hostile environment, is unpleasant at best and highly dangerous at worst. People will often choose to do this work because it is either well-paid, or the only work to be found where they live. Perhaps we have forgotten that mining is like this, perhaps because of those Chilean men who escaped from their collapsed mine unscathed last year. We rejoiced with them, but perhaps it made us imagine that this is what will always happen. That this is how it will always be.
I’m sure that there were as many prayers offered for those four men at Gleision Colliery as there were for those 33 men at Copiapo in Chile last year, but miracles would not be miracles if they happened in every circumstance. Everybody knows that everybody dies, but some times, just some times, a miracle occurs. Then, we should not ask why or why not death does not visit. We should simply rejoice.