The body of a fourth miner was discovered in Gleision Colliery last night, in a final crushing blow to a small Welsh community that had clung tenaciously to the hope that someone would be pulled alive from the earth.
"We've tried to bring this safely to its conclusion. Unfortunately the conclusion we have is the one none of us wanted," said Peter Vaughan, Chief Constable of South Wales Police, confirming that Phillip Hill, Charles Breslin, David Powell and Garry Jenkins had all perished in the worst British mining accident in three decades. "I can't begin to imagine what the families are going through," said Mr Vaughan. "We've been humbled by the community spirit that's been shown during this most tragic of incidents."
As David Cameron offered his condolences on a "desperately, desperately sad situation", Neath MP Peter Hain said: "This is the end we all feared but hoped against hope wouldn't happen. Extraordinary courage was shown by the families right through the night, tortuous hours of waiting. We can't imagine what they have been through.
"This has been a stab right through the heart of these local communities. There's a long tradition of mining here but nobody expected the tragedies of past generations would come today."
Throughout the day one ambulance after another, its lights extinguished, had travelled down the single-track lane to the flooded colliery in South Wales. In scenes reminiscent of generations past, rescue workers, their faces smeared in sweat and grime, had worked "tirelessly and selflessly", putting in a "super-human effort".
At the Rhos village community centre the bad news had come in waves throughout the day. Amid scenes described as "harrowing and appalling", friends and relatives wept openly as others stood about silently, impotently wondering what to do.
Well-wishers did their best to offer solace, bringing sandwiches and toys for the children while the Red Cross brought blankets and pillows.
The disaster began on Thursday morning when the miners were blasting underground. A wall, holding back water, collapsed and flooded the shaft. The seven miners inside scrambled for safety and three made it out, though one was critically injured. A father and son were separated. Andrew Powell, 23, made it out – along with Mark Lloyd, 45, and Malcolm Fifield, 46 – but almost 300 feet below ground his father David, 50, remained trapped alongside Mr Hill, 45, Mr Breslin, 62, and Mr Jenkins, 39, all men from the Swansea Valley.
Throughout the day, it had been hoped that they had found refuge in an air pocket as rescue teams worked "slowly and steadily" through the debris to clear water from the mine, excavate blockages and shore up the tunnels while pumping in oxygen. Above ground a revolutionary micro-seismic unit, which can detect and filter sounds thousands of feet below, was used for the first time in the UK in a vain attempt to find the men below.
Rescuers explained how their hopes for a successful outcome were slowly dashed as the hours wore on. The catastrophic flooding occurred down a mine shaft that jutted off to the left of the main artery after 250m.
The body of the first miner was discovered before rescuers even made it to the blast site suggesting that the man had been trying to escape to the exit. Divers who tried to swim towards the blockage were then forced to turn back because of the debris and appalling visibility.
When rescuers finally made it around the rubble they came across the body of a second miner, buried in silt. Rescuers then found a third during the early afternoon and a few hours later the fourth near by.
Even before the disaster, the close-knit villages surrounding the mine were already reeling from a separate tragedy. On Tuesday, five-year-old Harry Patterson was killed in Alltwen, a village within walking distance of the mine, when he accidentally released the handbrake of his family's Seat car.
Last night, the authorities turned their attention from a rescue operation to an investigation into how such a devastating disaster could take place.
Drift mining: The final remnant of wales's once mighty industry
* Gleision Colliery is a relic of a past era of mining that has been given a lifeline by the rising price of coal. It is a drift mine, meaning that miners can walk straight in rather than having to be lowered down a deep shaft to get to the coal. In drift mines the seam being followed can dip and rise but is generally horizontal or slightly downwards, although tunnels can be several hundred metres long.
* In 1992 there were 85 drift mines in South Wales but by 2004 just three remained, and last year the Nant Hir colliery closed, leaving just Gleision and Blaentillery. Until 2008 there was also the deep shaft mine at the Tower Colliery, but that closed down when the coal ran out. Rising coal prices, however, have encouraged a new generation of investors and there are now three medium-sized shaft mines being developed in South Wales.
* Gleision has been operational, with occasional short breaks, since the early 1960s and managed to weather the Thatcher era. It is small and privately owned, and is thought to have employed nine miners. It had two tunnels into the hillside, one of which was equipped with a conveyor to move the coal to the surface.
* Anthracite coal, one of the most valuable and cleanest forms of coal, was being dug out at Gleision. It is comparatively smokeless, making it ideal for homes that are still heated by coal.
* UK mines are heavily regulated by Health and Safety and in recent years have had a good record. The worst recent mining accident was in 1979 at Goldborne in Wigan, when an explosion killed 10 people.
* At Gleision, water broke through, either from an old mine working or a natural underground pool, into the shaft. The location of most such bodies of water are known, but some go unmapped or undetected.
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