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Forlorn Hopes

On the surface, the bad news had spread fast. Anxious families surrounded the pithead desperate to know news of what was happening below.

Down the pit, the situation was worsening. A canary proved that the 29s return airway was too dangerous to enter. There would be no more survivors following John Samuel's way out. Fires were burning at the 29s turn making it impossible to escape from any other Dennis district. Meanwhile the falls in the main Dennis roadway made tackling the fire difficult. The shortage of fire fighting equipment on site also hampered the early work of the rescue teams.

"The Price of Coal" Daily Express cartoon, September 24th 1934

All that Saturday, I sat with my mum waiting for news, hoping that dad would be among the survivors and would come walking in through the door.

Elizabeth Clarke, daughter of Francis Hughes, one of the 266 miners killed

Disaster struck again on Saturday morning. William Bonsall, the colliery manager, wanted to find out the state of the air in the 20s return airway. Perhaps miners in the 20s district could still be alive. The Llay Main No. 1 Rescue team were sent into the airway. The fumes killed off their canary before they had gone five metres. The team continued in, found their way blocked and on the way back three rescuers - John Lewis, Bill Hughes and Dan Hughes - were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Perhaps their equipment had been damaged in the chaotic scenes at the surface.

People awaiting news from below, Gresford Colliery, September 22nd-23rd 1934.

The rescue teams continued to fight the fire. On the Sunday afternoon, they heard explosions occurring deeper in the mine. Suddenly the question was not whether they could save any of the miners, but should they continue to risk their own lives.

John Lewis and the Gresford Colliery rescue team. John Lewis died during the rescue operation. He is second from right, front row. © Wrexham Archives

Rescue men go in

William Bonsall, Sir Henry Walker, Chief Inspector of Mines; and Edward Hughes, Miners' Agent met at 7pm and decided to abandon and seal the pit. It was the right decision because on Tuesday, the Dennis section exploded again, killing one man on the surface. In all the disaster had claimed the lives of 266 men.

The sealed pit

We emptied during those two hours our team was there, about fifty to sixty sacks of sand and I am sure about a hundred fire extinguishers and we hadn't moved an inch.

Robert Ellis, rescue worker

What a sight! The whole level was just one mass of flame, the coal sides of the roadway burning in one white mass.