DAD WAS LAST MAN TO BE PULLED OUT OF THAT PIT ALIVE; The 1913 Senghenydd Colliery disaster casts a grim shadow over the nation to this day. On the eve of the tragedy's centenary, SION MORGAN looks back at one of the bleakest days in Welsh history...
The Aber Valley community in Caerphilly will mark the tragedy by unveiling the Wales National Mining Memorial along with a Universal Wall of Remembrance, Memorial Garden and a Path of Memory for those killed by the explosion, which ripped apart the Universal Colliery on October 14, 1913.
In a measure of the grim scale of the disaster, funerals were held until the middle of November that year.
Remarkably, though, rescuers were still finding survivors days after the devastating blast.
Among the survivors was 22-year-old Arthur Balsom, the last man to have been rescued alive, more than two weeks after disaster struck.
For his 92-year-old son, Ken Balsom, tomorrow's events will be particular poignant.
"Fifteen days after the explosion, rescuers at Senghenydd incredibly found 17 men in the rubble, still alive," he told Wales on Sunday.
"They were ready to turn for home, there was nobody else who could possibly have survived at that point. "Then they heard the sound of a bell coming from another section of the mine."
Ken added: "They eventually found an eighteenth man - dad.
"The ringing had been triggered by a piece of falling rock which had, by pure chance, pushed two live electric wires together, which had then set off the bell.
"He was the last man to be found alive, if that bell had not rung he would certainly have died."
It was 8am on that fateful Tuesday, October 14, a century ago, when the huge explosion rocked the tiny town of Senghenydd.
It came from the coal mine belonging to the Universal Colliery, the most significant employer in the area. Before the hour was out it was clear to everyone, miners and their families alike, that what had happened was a disaster of major proportions.
On that morning nearly 950 men had been working below ground. Many of them were killed or injured before they even knew what was happening.
The explosion was probably caused by an electrical spark igniting methane gas - firedamp, as it was known. The firedamp explosion caused coal dust lying on the floor of the mine to rise, also catching fire and exploding in a gigantic roar.
The shockwave promptly caused more coal dust to rise into the air creating a series of self-fuelling explosions.
The fires spread through most of the underground workings, quickly followed by afterdamp, deadly gasses formed by the explosion.
A subsequent inquiry into the disaster found numerous faults laid at the door of the owners and managers, but when compensation and fines were levied they came to a derisory PS24 in total.
One newspaper commented that miners' lives were worth just "PS0 1s 1 1/4d" - no more than six pence today.
Ken said: "I still have my dad's train ticket from October 14, 1913 from Caerphilly to the Colliery.
"He was 22 years old when the disaster happened and went on to marry my mother at the age of 27, so I feel very lucky to even be here today myself." Arthur Balsom went on to live a happy life after Senghenydd, but never worked underground again, instead forging careers in insurance sales and milk distribution.
He died suddenly in 1953, aged 62.
Ken said: "Senghenydd was such a terrible tragedy that dad never spoke about the disaster much, nobody did, it was a terrible shock for the community for a very long time.
"Dad died suddenly, he came home from work one night, went to bed and never woke up.
"We later found that he was suffering from emphysema and bronchitis so although he had survived the disaster his health had certainly been affected by the explosion.
"He was a wonderful father though, and we had many wonderful years with him, unlike so many others."
Incredibly, Ken's own life has also been touched by tragedy.
The former baptist minister was in the village of Pentrebach on October 21, 1966 - the infamous day a colliery spoil tip collapsed just a few miles away in the village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
"It was another tragedy," Ken said. "As a minister at the time I went and helped as best I could, there were ministers there from all over the country and we tried to help the community.
"It is a strange coincidence that I am connected with two events that had such a terrible impact on this part of the world.
"And they will never be forgotten." Tomorrow, thousands of people are expected to attend a dedication service for the Welsh National Mining Memorial in Senghenydd The memorial will sit close to the colliery, commemorating 150 mining disasters, among them Gleision in the Swansea Valley, where four men died in 2011.
The memorial includes a slate tile for each miner killed in Wales and a life-sized bronze statue of one miner carrying another to safety.
Artist Les Johnson said: "It symbolises a sense of community, togetherness, everybody pitching in and making the best of their lives and the situations they are in."
Tomorrow evening, Senghenydd church bells will ring in a ceremony normally reserved for Remembrance Sunday while a number of other events will take place throughout the week.
Meanwhile, Caerphilly MP Wayne David last week tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) in the House of Commons to mark the centenary of the Senghenydd Mining Disaster.
He said: "The local community has raised over PS350,000 and Carwyn Jones, Welsh First Minister, and myself will lay wreaths at the new memorial at Senghenydd on Monday morning.
"I am sure that very many MPs will add their names to this EDM.
"It is important to remember what happened in Senghenydd and it is also important to remember those miners throughout the country who, over the years, have lost their lives in the coal industry."
Arthur Balsom survived the Senghenydd disaster. Below, his 92-year-old son, Ken Balsom, of Bedwas, has memorabilia dating back to that day
October 14, 1913: Crowds gather at Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, after Wales' worst pit explosion in which 489 men and boys died