Kinship Shared by Mining Communities over the Miles; for Thousands of Families in the Former South Wales Coalfield, the Life-Affirming Chilean Mine Rescue Was Swiftly Overshadowed This Week by the 29 Deaths in New Zealand's Pike River Driftmine Explosion. Wayne Nowaczyk Looks at the Generations of Heartbreak the Hope and Tragedy Have Brought to the Fore
Byline: Wayne Nowaczyk
AT BIG Pit in Blaenavon, the Welsh Dragon flies at half-mast saluting the dead in a pit halfway across the world.
It's a tragedy just a heartbeat away from the nation's World Heritage museum and the blood, sweat and tears of 200 years' toil for King Coal.
Not a gesture but a recognition of kinship from valleys that know the pain of burying hundreds of its sons, husbands and brothers; a terraced mentality forged in pain, suffering and mutual support that stretches back generations. When TV eventually shows the stretchers coming up at Pike River, thousands of modest homes here will know the heartache, fatalism and furious futility.
It's pain that Wales has known many times. A sacrifice marked in many little museums, plaques and memorials, though as old miners fade as fast as Margaret Thatcher, it's a world increasingly alien to the younger generation.
Schools like those around Senghenydd in the Rhymney Valley still hold annual services to mark the worst colliery accident in British history in 1913 when 439 - including rescuers - were killed. But communal understanding is fading with the decades. Not for great grandfather Jimmy Watkins, 79, however. He was one of the lucky ones spared on June 28, 1960 when Six Bells' Harold Griffin Pit suffered an explosion that claimed 45 lives.
Mr Watkins, then 29, watched at pitside with the widows and orphans as the corpses were brought to the surface "never then or since able to say why I was spared".
At his Richmond Road home, the retired pit electrician remembers being switched by Six Bells management that fateful day to work in another district: "I said: 'So long' to 19-year-old Dennis Lane and waved as he walked into West District.
"I walked a half mile to the engine house and the light failed so I thought I'd be rewiring - then the phone went and an official ordered us to the surface which was strange and we knew something was wrong.
"The bottom of the pit was all in darkness and deadly quiet and then I saw stretchers being laid out and knew it was going to be bad.
"It was dreadful waiting with the families so I knew how they felt in New Zealand," said Mr Watkins, who went on to help set up the Six Bells memorial opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury last summer to mark the disaster's 50th anniversary. …