In August 2010 a roof fall at the San Jose copper/gold mine in Chile trapped 33 miners 700 metres underground. After 69 days underground and a massive rescue operation, which involved NASA and more than a dozen international corporations, all 33 men were rescued over a 24 hour period. After winching the last trapped miners to the surface the rescue workers held a placard up for the cameras reading "Mission accomplished Chile". This was seen by an estimated television audience of more than a billion viewers around the world.
The Chilean rescue reminded many of a similar incident which occurred in the Rhondda Valleys over 130 years before. On the 11th April 1877 Tynewydd Colliery in Porth became flooded by water from the abandoned workings of the nearby Cymmer Old Colliery. At the time of the inundation fourteen miners were underground at Tynewydd and rescue attempts were begun to find them.
Five of the survivors were located after sounds of knocking were heard and rescuers had to cut through 12 yards of coal to reach them. Unfortunately, when the area was broken into, one of the trapped men was killed by the force of the air rushing out through the rescue hole. There were now nine men unaccounted for.
Desperate rescue attempts
Further sound of knocking were heard from working places beneath the water line which led to the rescuers assuming that there were other survivors trapped in an air pocket. An attempt was made by two divers from London to reach the men but the amount of debris blocking the roadways made this impossible. It was decided that the only way now was to cut a rescue heading through 38 yards of coal.
During the ten days it took to reach the five trapped men, the rescue attracted the attention of the world's press and telegrams were even sent by Queen Victoria who was concerned about the men's plight. The trapped miners were reached on Friday, April 20th; they had been without food and had only mine water to drink for ten days. The five rescued miners were found to be suffering from 'the bends' because of the rapid decompression of their air pocket and had to spend time in hospital but otherwise recovered fully. The four other missing miners were all drowned.
Brave and heroic rescues
Although the incident was a minor one in terms of loss of life (an explosion at Cymmer Colliery had killed 114 men and boys in 1856), the perseverance of the rescue teams attracted great press and public interest. Twenty four First and Second Class and other presentation items were awarded to the rescuers in a ceremony held at the Rocking Stone above Pontypridd. It was estimated that up to forty thousand people attended.
The Tynewydd rescue was the first time that Albert Medals had been awarded for bravery on land. Five of these medals are now held by Big Pit National Coal Museum along with examples of presentation silverware and other items connected with the rescue.
Article by: Ceri Thompson, Curator, Big Pit National Coal Museum