“Anybody else here alive?” Matt called out. He had woken up with a jerk. He was scared and breathing hard. It was so dark he did not know if his eyes were open or closed. The pounding in his head was making his ears roar. He reached up to touch his head and felt sticky, matted hair. It was October 14, 1953.
“I’m here,” a nearby voice called back. “You are not alone. Breathe slowly and remain calm. You will be alright, just a small cut on your head. You lost your helmet when you fell and your head hit a rock. I’ll tear some strips from your undershirt and bandage the wound. And you twisted your ankle, it is swollen and sprained. I will wrap that the best I can.”
Matt heard and felt his undershirt ripping, then felt strips wrapping around his head. “There. I’ll tie this on the other side so the knot won’t irritate the cut.” Then Ollie wrapped his ankle with more strips.
“Thank you …,” Matt reached out to take the man’s hand, but could not see where he was. “I don’t know your name. I’m Matt Rees.”
“Ollie,” the man answered. “Ollie Morgan. Been coal mining for so long this is like my home down here. You’re pretty young, been down before?”
“Once before,” Matt paused a few seconds. “Looks like this may be my last time if I die here. Anybody else here alive?”
“Now, hold on. You ain’t gonna die. I’ll see that you get out safely. Rescue workers have already got several men out just on the other side of that rock and rubble wall there. They will be breaking through soon. But, you ain’t safe here. That other beam above us is creaking and will give way any minute. I’m going to help you up on your feet and guide you to a safe place close to where the workers will break through.”
Matt feared that everyone else had been killed. He asked again, “Anybody else here alive?”
“There is no one else here. You were further along than the others in the tunnel and got trapped alone. Come on, let’s go!”
Matt felt strong arms pull him up gently. He almost passed out again, but held steady with Ollie’s help. “I can’t see!”
“That’s okay. I’m used to the dark. I can see enough to get you up there to safety.” Ollie put one arm around Matt’s waist. “Put your arm over my shoulders, Matt.”
Together they stumbled their way to safety. They got away just as the beam behind them fell and more rocks crashed down. Matt began shaking from fear. Ollie sat him down and leaned him back against the wall. “You hold on, Matt. They will be here soon.”
Matt passed out several times over the next few hours. Each time he came to, Ollie was there with water for Matt to sip. Once, Matt began panicking. “We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die! It’s getting colder!” Ollie held him tight till Matt calmed down.
From somewhere bright light beams were searching the area. The rescue workers had broken through. Matt covered his eyes when a light beam shown on him. His head was hurting bad. “We found him,” a worker yelled. Within minutes Matt lay on a stretcher and was being carried out of the tunnel. He opened his eyes to see if Ollie was following. He saw Ollie’s face back in the tunnel just before another cave-in crashed down and Ollie was gone. He screamed out Ollie’s name several times before he passed out again.
“Did you say, Ollie Morgan saved your life, son? Ol’ Ollie has saved the lives of many young men in disasters like this.”
Matt, with tears streaming down his blackened face, looked up at the foreman. “And now he’s gone after saving me! How many disasters has Ollie been in?”
“Only one, son. Ollie Morgan died forty years ago in the 1913 Senghenydd coal mine explosion and fire in South Wales.”
© 2019 Phyllis Doyle Burns
Both Matt and Ollie are fictional characters.
Mining has always been especially dangerous, because of explosions, roof cave-ins, and the difficulty of underground rescue. The worst single disaster in British coal mining history was at Senghenydd in the South Wales coalfield. On the morning of 14 October 1913 an explosion and subsequent fire killed 436 men and boys. Only 72 bodies were recovered.
For more on the Senghenydd mining disaster visit wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senghenydd_colliery_disaster
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