Lone vigil mirrors nightmare of every pitworker: Jonathan Foster reports from Bilsthorpe on a tragedy made even more poignant by the desperate plight of the industry

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The Independent Online
HE SAT on the black and white kerb stones at the entrance to Bilsthorpe colliery and watched a British Coal director announce the latest developments in the search for five trapped miners.

He was the only villager at the pit gates in the early hours of yesterday, and he had come because his friend, Bill McCulloch, was down there. More than 12 hours after the roof collapsed, rescuers had found two of the men. They were unhurt, but Mr McCulloch was not one of them. He was probably already dead.

'It's every miner's nightmare to be trapped,' the friend said. 'It sounds as if something was wrong with the roof bolting for the fall to have happened where it did. Those bolts would have been fixed two weeks ago.'

He did not wait for confirmation of Mr McCulloch's death. 'I'm off home to put the coffee on.' He smiled, but his eyes were tearful.

Yesterday, in the pit villages of Nottinghamshire, the tragedy was made more poignant by the desperate plight of the industry and its people. Bilsthorpe's workforce of 613 had been busting a gut to make money and prove the pit's viability. Inevitably, the technique of roof bolting was blamed.

Paul Smith, rescued three hours after the roof collapsed, will never go down the pit again. He was taking a drink when he heard a thunderous noise 'like a squadron of jets taking off'.

'I am too shocked, I'll pack the job in,' he said yesterday, after being discharged from hospital. 'I started to see the roof coming in and before I knew I just blacked out. I thought I had gone. It was just horrific. I heard it all crashing in, all caving in and all the noise. I saw the under-manager David Shelton go down. He was just crushed, there was nothing I could do to help him.'

Mr Shelton, 31, Mr McCulloch, 26, and Peter Alcock, 50, died in the fall. Mr Smith could see them pinned by the collapse, and hear the two others, Russ Turner, 36, and Orest Kocij, 43, who were rescued after more than 12 hours.

'It was just horrific,' Mr Smith said. 'I was squashed and panicking. The roof was coming in all the time and I had to scratch away to find a safe place and crawl my way there to keep a roof support over my head.

'I realised I was in a safe place but I was frightened to death. When they got me out I broke down.'

Mr Kocij said: 'After the roof fell in, everything went black. We could not see a thing, although we did have contact over the tannoy for a short while.'

The pair built a makeshift shelter with steel bars, and waited for rescue, talking about smoking, holidays and caravans. There was no shortage of air. 'We knew everyone was battling for us - they handled it marvellously,' Mr Turner said.

Those Bilsthorpe men prepared yesterday to talk about the disaster preferred to stress the successful rescues rather than the deaths. 'The media aren't welcome here. They're just like vultures around the industry. Everybody seems to be glorying in the death of mining, whether its pits or men,' one said.

A pit deputy said that the three survivors were fortunate. 'I know a lot of men don't like roof bolting, but there are a lot of things they don't like. What they want, though, is a job, and we have to face up to the fact that roof bolting has been safe in the past and it's won us coal we wouldn't otherwise have got. Bilsthorpe wouldn't be economically viable if we had to go back to using (steel) rings.'

Officials of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers said that they would wait for the outcome of the official accident investigation before commenting on the roof bolting technique. But Henry Richardson, Nottinghamshire leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, said: 'You've got to suspect anything that hasn't got legs under it.'

Leading article, page 19

(Photographs and graphics omitted)

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