The Six Bells Colliery Disaster – Six Bells Colliery Explosion.
On Tuesday 28th June 1960 an explosion occurred below ground at the Six Bells Colliery, Six Bells resulting in the death of 45 men.
The Monmouth Constabulary – Official Report.
The report that follows – was compiled by the superintendent of D-Division on the 13th July 1960 and sent to the chief constable at Abergavenny. It shows the police reaction and planning during the day of the disaster which occurred at the Six Bells Colliery, Abertillery on Tuesday 28th June 1960 which resulted in the death of forty-five men who were employed at this colliery. The report also gives recommendations on how to better the planning on any future major incidents.
The forty-five men were engaged in their normal duties in W-District of the colliery on the morning shift, when at about 10.40am on that day an explosion of gas occurred which resulted in these men being killed.
Only three other workmen survived the explosion and blast, these men received their injuries about 1000 yards away from the seat of the explosion. Their only recollection of the accident was of hearing explosion and feeling the effects of the flame which followed on immediately after the explosion. These men were not seriously injured and two were allowed home the same day after receiving medical attention. One was detained at Aberbeeg Hospital suffering from burns and shock.
Although it has now been established that the explosion occurred at about 10.40am, no official action was initiated by the colliery management until about 11.30am. This arose because the workmen in the affected district were engaged on maintenance duties and the only survivors were the three men who eventually reached the bottom of the pit shaft sometime after the explosion and they could give very little information on the occurrence. It was only after subsequent reconnaissance that it was agreed that the matter was then serious and when this fact was accepted by the management they alerted their “Disaster Plan”, when this was initiated, certain information seemed to have percolated into the Six Bells area. As a result of this information a number of local inhabitants came to the colliery premises.
Mr Luther, manager of the Six Bells Colliery descended the shaft with his reconnaissance party at about 11.30am. When he realised the seriousness of the situation he returned to the surface and it was upon his instructions that the “Disaster Plan” was put into effect. Consequently at 12.20pm Mr Luther realised that the crowd which was then congregating in the vicinity of the pithead would impede rescue operations. Mr Luther then telephoned the Abertillery Police Station asking that police officers should be directed to the colliery to control the crowd. When seeking the assistance of the police Mr Luther also informed Inspector Moore of the explosion but was unable to give further information as to its results.
Inspector Moore upon receipt of the information alerted the personnel at all stations within the Abertillery Division and dispatched Sergeant 344 Millett with three constables to the colliery premises.
Sergeant Millett upon arrival at the colliery found a crowd of men and women within the colliery yard and a number of them were making their way to the pithead. He immediately posted two constables on the two gates which led into the colliery premises and he then persuaded the crowd to return to an area situated in the vicinity of the colliery canteen.
Sergeant Millett then contacted Mr Luther the colliery manager, who was at this time setting up a control post in the general offices of the colliery. The sergeant ascertained from the manager that an explosion had occurred in the W-District of the number 5 pit. It was then realised by management that the explosion had serious consequences and that it was thought that between thirty or forty men who were working in that district had become involved. This information was then telephoned by Sergeant Millett to myself.
After dispatching Sergeant 344 Millett with the three constables, Inspector Moore telephoned all the information which he had obtained regarding the incident as a “Progress Report” to the information room. At 12.30pm, with D.S. Parry he proceeded to the colliery to meet with Sergeant Millett.
Inspector Moore immediately detailed D.S. Parry to make contact with the N.C.B control post for more information, Sergeant Parry was then able to meet with Mr Walker the area manager who informed Sergeant Parry that the explosion which had occurred in W-District was to be considered serious. They were then making a detailed check of the workmen’s lamps at the lamproom so that a complete assessment of the number of men who had been in the district at the time of the explosion could be ascertained, it was then thought that about fifty men had been in the disaster and who be involved as casualties.
Mr Walker added that he had been on the colliery premises when Mr Luther had ascended the colliery with the information at 11.00am and that he had alerted all the mines rescue teams in the area and had set their Emergency Disaster Scheme into operation, this alerted the hospitals of any possible casualties and doctors and ambulances are then ready to proceed to the scene, if and when required.
I was passed this information and at 1.00pm made a telephone call for a “Progress Report” to the assistant chief constable and then proceeded to the colliery premises to supervise police arrangements. When he arrived he found a large crowd of relatives and sight-seers contained in the area near the colliery yard. This crowd was orderly and were being supervised by a constable on duty. Upon visiting the pit, I was informed that one body had been found and was being brought to the surface within a very short time. This body was brought to the surface at 1.45pm and taken to the medical centre in the pithead baths.
The possibilities of other bodies being recovered from the affected area then appreciated and immediate steps were taken to set up premises as temporary mortuaries, these premises were located close to the pithead. At regular intervals other bodies of the victims were brought to the surface where each was examined by Dr Kurt Triger of Abertillery, who was able to certify after examination the cause of death in each case, after his examination the bodies were cleaned by local nurses who had come to the colliery on the alert by the colliery management. After cleansing, the bodies were placed in temporary shrouds, ready for identification by their relatives.
The control post operated by the N.C.B. authorities was functioning and liaison with this post gave out the necessary information, I was able to contact Mr Walker at the control post at half-hourly intervals to obtain from him up-to-date information regarding the planning of rescue operations which were taking place below ground.
The seriousness of the explosion had been appreciated by the colliery management, all workmen from the other districts in the colliery had been withdrawn and brought to the surface. A complete check was carried out by management on all workmen who had been employed underground on the 28th June 1960, it was only after a series of checks and double checks that a final list of victims was established and this list was handed to me at 7.30pm on the day of the explosion. Previous to the receipt of the official list, the police had been in possession of a temporary list of victims that had been prepared by the head lampman. It proved a great assistance in their preliminary planning and dealing with requests from anxious relatives at the colliery canteen.
Notification of casualties was carried out by the N.C.B. representatives at the homes of the workmen involved in the disaster.
As soon as the news of the explosion had become known, the officials of the National Union of Mineworkers, the N.U.M. came to the colliery and it was necessary to set up their own headquarters at the general offices of the colliery. This headquarters was headed by Mr Bryn Jenkins, the miners agent for the area and liaison was also maintained by myself as well as with the operations room of the N.C.B.
I kept close liaison with the officials of the N.C.B. and through them was able to make contact with the relatives of the victims and to circulate any instructions which was needed. When I realised the seriousness of the explosion and the number of victims which were then involved I contacted Col K. D. Treasure, H.M. Coroner for Monmouthshire at the earliest opportunity. I also contacted the coroner by telephone at 4.30pm on the 28th June 1960 and gave him all the information available regarding the number of victims who it was thought may have been killed and would be the subject of enquiry as to the cause of death by his office.
The only information that was given to the coroner was regarding the bodies which had been recovered at that time and at 9.30am on Wednesday 29 June 1960 the coroner visited the colliery premises with me and viewed all the bodies that had been brought to the surface from underground. At the same time he instructed me to arrange for the opening of the inquests of the bodies of the victims and these inquests were arranged to take place at the Abertillery Police Station at 10.30am on Thursday 30th June 1960.
The last body was recovered and placed in the mortuaries at 6.20pm Wednesday 29th June 1960.
The coroner informed me that he would have the burial orders available at the inquest and these would be handed to the undertakers who were arranging the funerals for the relatives of the deceased men. After the Inquest was held and when dealing with the undertakers it was then ascertained that the majority of the relatives had requested individual funerals. It appeared that the relatives were not in favour of a mass burial of the victims and subsequently conferences had to be arranged in connection with the N.U.M. the undertakers, the local ministers of religion and the cemetery authorities to arrange movement and reception of all the funerals at the local cemetery.
The above was a general story of events which were dealt with over the period which the incident occurred. A detailed account of the incidents which were covered by the police under subject headings are as follows –
Control at the Incident.
The control of the crowds at the incident was much easier because of the situation of the colliery. Access to the colliery premises was restricted to two gates and control was imposed on these two gates and arrangements were such that the crowd was easily contained some 150 yards from the pithhead in a large area near the colliery canteen.
However it was pointed out that control in the vicinity of the incident was more difficult because of the large crowds of sight-seers who came to the scene in their cars during the day together with the arrival of the B.B.C. and I.T.V. units who occupied a permanent position in the vicinity of the colliery who caused more interest in their operations.
The duties of the police were handicapped at this incident by the irresponsible parking of vehicles in narrow streets on the approach road to the colliery and these unnecessary obstructions caused extra work for the police in bringing the rescue teams into the pithead. This difficulty would have been greatly increased if the casualties as a result of the explosion had involved a number of of injured persons who would had been required to have been passed to hospitals either locally of in the Newport area.
The obstructions, sometimes were caused by persons who had arrived very early after the commencement of the incident and those people had locked their vehicles, this causing the difficulties referred to. This difficulty could be averted if sufficient officers were dispatched to any incident, so that immediate control of roads can be imposed within the vicinity. This would also allow easy access of essential services as near to the seat of the occurrence.
A control post in connection with the police arrangements was set up in the area near to the colliery canteen by using a divisional van. The type of body provided by the divisional van was sufficient to house a clerk and give sufficient space to be utilised as an office to deal with the early administrative matters which were necessary in dealing with the incident.
It was thought that the divisional van would give wireless communication with police headquarters but reception at the colliery was very bad and recourse was made to telephones which were installed at the colliery. Difficulty, however was found in obtaining communications through this source, because of –
(a) The saturation of the telephone exchange at the colliery premises with urgent calls made to the management.
(b) Subsequent use of the colliery canteen and the medical aid centre by the rescue teams operating at the incident.
It is pointed out in this connection that if any incident is large enough to warrant the attention of the B.B.C. and I.T.V. with their sound and television vans all means of communication can be made with the G.P.O. engineers who follow such services to the scene of any large occurrence.
Inspector Moore, upon discussion a few days afterwards with the G.P.O engineer, ascertained that if a similar large incident occurs again where the B.B.C. introduce their vans for transmission of programmes, the post office engineers who follow should tie up a land-line for use by the B.B.C. staff to transmit. It was then suggested the the post office engineers could similarly tie up a land-line to any private line operated by the police and it is therefore recommended that consideration could be given to this point in any future major incident to facilitate the communications which would pass between the incident control post, police headquarters and the divisional headquarters upon whose ground the incident has occurred.
A further point can also be considered when the police control post cannot be situated at the seat of the incident. It is in this instance that the use of a field telephone can be considered as an extra means of communication between the local police control and the actual seat of operations.
It is suggested (from the experience at this incident) that the police control point should be supervised and maintained at all times during the operations by an officer of the rank, either of inspector or that of sergeant. In this way he can maintain the efficient control and supervision of men and create systematic passage of information to divisional headquarters and at the same time maintain proper administrative supervision with the assistance of a constable clerk.
It was noted In the present incident noted above, the police control post was served with a duty and occurrence book and an “on” and “off” book, together with an incident diary and as from 2.00pm on Tuesday 28th June 1960, this post was maintained by a constable under the supervision of a sergeant.
Liaison with the Authorities.
Very little difficulty was experienced in maintaining proper liaison with the authorities who involved with this incident. The N.C.B had set up an operations room which was employed in conducting all rescue operations in connection with the explosion and I was able to visit this room and confer with the senior officer at regular intervals and obtain from him first hand information regarding the incident.
The contact at the operations room was also made with the mines inspector, the senior officials of the N.U.M. and this in itself is stressed as an important factor in creating good relations and sustaining a facility of control which reacts favourably on the police presence at the scene.
In this instance which involved trade unions the police were accommodated at a headquarters which the N.U.M. set up at the colliery office and it was found that their officials, who appeared to be confused by the magnitude of the incident were only too willing to accept the leadership of a senior police official and to act in many ways under his direction.
The liaison with the trade union headquarters was found of great advantage when dealing with the relatives of the deceased men, especially where arrangements were needed in connection with the circulation of information regarding the fatalities and also in dealing with the funeral arrangements.
Circulation of Information.
With the realisation of the magnitude of the disaster, as can be expected, numerous press representatives came to the scene. In this respect criticism can be made against the public relations service of the N.C.B. who with-held official information from representatives of the press, They then made repeated requests to the police personnel at the scene in the endeavours to obtain some facts and information concerning the explosion and their persistence could have impeded police work at the scene.
I took this matter up with the area manager who in turn replied that the press representatives would be supplied with an official statement by the divisional public relations officer, though I considered that the reporters had very little confidence in this man. This was proved to be so when he arrived at the pithead and was unable to satisfy the newspapers and others with his press statement until 7.30pm the night of the disaster.
I appreciated the difficulties of the National Coal Board in supplying a list of casualties until they were sure of the survivors and I was not able to establish a list with the N.C.B. until 7.30pm on the night of the disaster, when handed the list giving all the names and addresses of all those who had been involved.
This point was made as the National News had circulated information regarding the disaster on various news bulletins during the day and enquiries were then received at the divisional headquarters from many sources. In this connection seventy-three phone calls were received at the Abertillery Police Station on the evening of the 28th June 1960 requesting information of the victims on the disaster.
With the available information which had been brought from the colliery, fifteen of these calls were were dealt with immediately though inquiry was necessary in respect to fifty-six of these calls and subsequently on receipt of the official list of victims from the National Coal Board all the calls were dealt with from this station, by reference either to individual addresses in various parts of England and Wales or by passage of information through various police forces.
It is therefore suggested that in any future major incident, an urgent request for a list of victims should be made without delay and upon its receipt particulars should be passed immediately to (a) Police headquarters (b) Divisional headquarters so that urgent enquiries can be efficiently dealt with and no undue stress and concern caused to the relatives of persons thought to be involved in such an occurrence.
It would appear that if such an incident occurs in connection with the National Coal Board or any large industrial undertaking, their emergency schemes should provide for the alerting of all the essential services. In this present case, this was efficiently completed in the early stages by the operations of the N.C.B. Emergency Scheme which considered the alerting of Hospitals, Doctors, Ambulances and Nurses, either local or throughout a wider area.
Temporary mortuaries can be set up easily and should be situated in close proximity to the incident. In the incident referred to above two buildings were provided as temporary mortuaries and the following procedure was adopted –
Each body was introduced to the mortuary, it was recorded and labelled, this system was found to be of great assistance when the bodies were finally dealt with by the undertakers and taken away to the homes of the deceased persons.
In the present incident the mortuaries were fitted out with brattice cloth, stocked at the colliery, for partitioning off the old parts of the building, for shrouds and also for floor covering.
It was found subsequently that the two buildings which was used as temporary mortuaries may have been too small as difficulty was found in the movement between bodies when identification was made by relatives and also when coffins were being brought in to receive the bodies by the undertakers.
Each body as it was brought to the surface was first examined by a doctor for injuries and cause of death. Secondly the body was stripped and examined for personal property. This search was conducted by a police officer and a representative from the N.U.M. as the question of contraband was a very important feature of the search. It was discovered that a search of the first body, that the man had a cigarette in his possession.
Each body as it was brought to the surface was given a consecutive number and this was then carried through as a reference to cover –
(a) Personal property recovered from the deceased.
(b) Statement of identification, obtained from a relative.
(c) Coroner’s form.
(d) Undertakers reference.
(e) Miscellaneous property receipt cataloguing personal property.
When dealing with temporary mortuaries consideration should be given to a good supply of water which is essential in dealing with the cleansing of the bodies.
Identification of Bodies.
On the morning following the explosion the following procedure was set up by the police in dealing with the identification of the bodies.
(a) An office was taken over by the police near the pithead.
(b) Three typists were added as office staff.
(c) A sergeant and two constables were on duty at this office (one to each typist).
A “runner” was employed between this office and the temporary mortuary, as relatives arrived they were first interviewed by colliery officials and representatives of the N.U.M. After this initial interview the relatives were taken by the “runner” to the mortuary to for the purpose of identifying the bodies.
Having completed the identification the relatives were returned to the office and introduced to the sergeant or one of the constables on duty. The officers then obtained all the necessary particulars from the relatives regarding the deceased person for the completion of the coroners forms. Statements of identity were then taken by the officer concerned and dictated to the typist, who in turn completed the statement which was then signed by the relatives in the presence of the officer.
Because of the nature of the injuries of some of the bodies, identification was not easy and it was found that the system set up, of placing each man’s property in a numbered sack greatly assisted to this end.
The method employed in this temporary police office in dealing with the identification and subsequent completion of the coroner’s forms proved a great service and was commented upon by H.M. Coroner when he attended the opening of the inquest on Thursday 30th June 1960.
Colonel Treasure came to the inquest with the expectation of spending some three or four hours in dealing with the enquiry, he however was able to deal with each inquiry regarding the identification easily and without difficulty so that the period of the inquest lasted for about one hour instead of a much longer period.
H.M. Coroner brought all the disposal orders with him to the inquest, these in turn were handed to the undertakers concerned so that their arrangements were facilitated and the subsequent planning for the funerals made much easier.
It was subsequently learned that the relatives of the victims did not want to participate in a mass funeral, it was ascertained that the majority had arranged for their funerals to take place at the local cemetery at Brynithel on the Saturday 2nd July 1960.
This information disclosed that twenty-six victims of the explosion would be buried on the afternoon of Saturday 2nd July at the Brynithel Cemetery and it was considered necessary therefore to consider a plan to cover all funeral arrangements and a schedule was drawn up setting out the time-table which gave the time of arrival at half hour intervals of each funeral. At the same time the N.U.M. accepted the police recommendation that a public procession should form near the colliery gates and then walk from Six Bells, the distance of a mile to the Brynithel cemetery.
The undertakers co-operated in dealing with the relatives to arrange for the compliance of the times suggested in the funeral schedule and the whole operation was carried out with co-operation from all those concerned to such an extent that the last funeral was completed within seven minutes of the anticipated time of its arrival at the cemetery gates.
Representatives of the national press were present in great numbers at the incident and continual representations were made by them to the police for items of news so that they in turn could satisfy the demands of their editors. The police at the incident were restricted in the supply of information to the press and the only way I could help was by requesting the services of the public relations officer of the National Coal Board to deal with the press at the early stage of the incident.
There were no difficulties in dealing with the press representatives and credit should be given to them for their sympathetic bearing and patience in waiting for news and they co-operated with the police personnel on duty in every way.
Police Arrangements and Reinforcements.
Police reinforcements were introduced to the incident from other divisions and in this respect their duties were supervised by local officers. It was however found that little difficulties were bound to arise in the take over by supervising officers who had no knowledge of local conditions. In this respect it is therefore suggested that the officer in charge at the control post should be an officer well versed in the operation and with some considerable knowledge of the geography of the district and also with information of local conditions.
The police personnel at this major incident were supplied with refreshments from the colliery canteen by arrangement with the National Coal Board, this made the duties of the police officers much easier and took away a responsibility from me.
In any further major incident where canteen facilities are not available, I suggest that consideration for refreshments for police officers on duty at such occurrence should be a point to be dealt with by the officer in charge of the control post.
Recommendations and Suggestions.
1. All industrial undertakings such as the N.C.B. or large factories should have schemes to deal with major incidents and to make provisions in their schemes for immediate information to be passed to police headquarters and with other essential services that may be required to perform duties in any incident which may occur within their undertakings.
2. It is suggested that even if they are not required, the officer in charge of the incident should request a dispatch of as many officers as possible to the incident immediately as information is received at his headquarters. This is essential so that all roads in the vicinity of the incident can be policed in order that the possibility of movement of any essential transport into and out of the affected area can be dealt with efficiently.
3. The question of communication at the scene of the incident should be considered in relation to the difficulties experienced and set out in the above paragraphs.
4. The police control post should be in the charge of at all times, of an officer either of the rank of inspector or sergeant.
5. A good supply should be held at divisional headquarters of envelopes or containers to cover the recovery of personal property on victims at the scene of the incident. A small supply should also be held at sub-divisional level and these could be used in the initial stages of any incident until further supplies are brought in from police headquarters.
6. The possibility of supplying a telephone land line at the scene of any incident when B.B.C. operations are in progress could be explored by reference to the post office authorities.
7. It should be imperative that progress reports should be passed at half-hourly intervals from the police control post at the incident, to police headquarters.
From the Superintendent of D-Division.