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On October 14, 1913, 439 miners were killed after an explosion tore through Universal Colliery in Senghenydd.
But it was not the first deadly explosion at the colliery.
Towards the end of the night shift on May 24, 1901, 82 miners and 52 horses remained underground when two explosions happened in quick succession.
As the miners making their way home from their shift stopped to see what had happened, they saw a cloud of smoke and dust rising above the winding gears of the York and Lancaster pits.
A third explosion soon followed – shaking the ground beneath their feet.
Many of these miners headed straight back to the colliery to help.
Across the Aber Valley, people were woken up by the explosions as miners, doctors, medics and their families flocked to the pit to offer their help.
Of the 82 men left underground, 81 were killed.
The only survivor was William Harris.
As rescuers searched for survivors, Harris was found lying next to his dead horse, having suffered severe burns to his head, face and hands.
His appearance initially left rescuers believing he was dead, but when Dr Burke, the Medical Officer at Llanbradach Colliery, went to examine him, Harris moved his arm and groaned.
He was then taken up to the surface, examined, cleaned and treated before being bandaged up and taken home.
He was given little hope of survival at the time – but eventually recovered.
He was left with his head and hands disfigured and was mentally confused – believing he was the only person involved in the disaster.
The incident was not reported on by the press until two days afterwards, with means of communication at the time limited to telegraphs and a limited number of telephones.
Seven years later in 1908, Harris moved into a newly-built house on Caerphilly Road, Senghenydd, with his wife Amy.
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He eventually returned to work on the surface of the nearby Windsor Colliery in Abertridwr – with no records showing him ever returning to Universal Colliery.
The couple had six children – William, Beatrice, David, Annie, Evelyn and Eileen – some of which have descendants still living in the area today.
Harris died peacefully in 1936 and is buried at Penyrheol Cemetery in Caerphilly.
Jean Sellers, who is Harris’ granddaughter, and Gill Jones MBE, the secretary of the Aber Valley Heritage Group, came up with the idea of placing a small stone on his headstone explaining that Harris was the only survivor of the 1901 disaster.
A ceremony will be held at Penyrheol Cemetery on May 24 – the 121st anniversary of the tragedy.
Cwm Ifor Primary School’s choir will be performing on the day, which will be attended by Harris’ family and led by broadcaster Roy Noble – the patron of Aber Valley Heritage Group – and Penyrheol ward councillor Lindsay Whittle, who is chair of the heritage group.
A small exhibition of Harris’ memorabilia is on display at the Aber Valley Heritage Museum on Gwern Avenue, Senghenydd.
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