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At 4.20am on 29th May 1951, a massive explosion at Easington Colliery brought down 120 yards of roof, entombing 81 miners.

The explosion couldn’t have happened at a worse time because it happened in between the change of shifts. In the Duck Bill district of the Five Quarter seam, 43 men of the fore shift were about to take over from the 38 stone shift men coming to the end of their overnight stint.

All 81 men died (one was brought put alive but subsequently passed away due to his injuries) and two rescuers were also killed, taking the death toll of the Easington Pit Disaster to 83. It was the second biggest disaster in the history of the Durham Coalfield.

Len O’Donnell was due to work the back shift that day and would have been working in the seam which took the brunt of the explosion, so it was only by twist of scheduling fate that he is still around today to share his story.

Len’s story, though, starts a few years earlier.

“I was one of the eldest of 14 children and because we had such a big family I never went to school as my mum needed me to help around the house.

“When I was nearly 14 my dad said it was time to get down the pit but, in those days, I only ever wore shorts and when the recruiting officer saw me, he said I needed to have a pair of long trousers.

“My mum rushed me to the shop to get some trousers and I remember her saying that as soon as I got the job, I was to take them off so I could keep them for best.

“I got the job and spent the first few years working above ground before joining my father and other members of the family down the pit.

“I still remember the day of the explosion in 1951. We were on the back shift that day so if it had been an earlier one, my father and me would have been killed. We were the lucky ones.

“One of my friends, Tom Garside, was killed in the explosion. We played football together so when he died his family asked me to be one of the coffin bearers at his funeral.

“Because we knew the seams, my dad volunteered to be part of the rescue effort. I was told I was too young, but my dad said if I couldn’t go, then neither could he, so they relented, and we ended up working for 11 days straight to supply materials to help the rescue workers and and bringing the bodies out.

“I think I am now, at the age of 91, the last one remaining who took part in the rescue effort and it’s certainly not an experience I will ever forget.”

Len says the explosion helped to “unionise’ him and he became a vocal proponent of health and safety in the mining industry.

“I attended the enquiry and heard things I knew were to be false, but my dad told me to keep quiet, so I did. But from that day I vowed I would do everything I could to prevent something like that from ever happening again.”

Len subsequently played a leading role in the 1973 miners’ strike and his activism continued throughout his life as a member of the Labour party and as a parish and county councillor (he eventually became Chair of Durham County Council).

Len’s last few years as a miner were spent above ground after he became General Foreman, and he retired just before the 1984 strike.

A keen cyclist, Len used to cycle to and from the Pit each day and in retirement he took this hobby to new levels, completing several coast-to-coast charity rides and cycling from John O’Groats to Lands’ End.

But there was one further cycling itch he had to scratch.

Len takes up the story: “After my last John O’Groats to Lands’ End, my wife Doreen met me and in front of the TV cameras which were there to film me, I mentioned about cycling from the west coast of America to the east coast.

“It goes back to when I used to watch American films when I was younger and saw the prairies and rockies, and Doreen, because she knew me so well, said, if it was on my mind than I should do it, so I did, at the age of 69!

“I cycled from Los Angeles to New York, a distance of almost 4,000 miles in 3 months, and as I was Chair of the Fire Authority at the time, I arranged to stay at fire stations along the route.

“It was an amazing experience and I raised money to replace some of the fire engines and other equipment destroyed in the September 11 attacks.”

Len eventually wrote a book about his American adventure, entitled Bike for 9/11.

In the acknowledgements at the front of the book, her thanked his wife Doreen for allowing him to leave home for so long and for her general support during their married life.

Unfortunately, Doreen died of cancer in Len’s arms just before their 60th wedding anniversary 12 years ago.

Len says: “Doreen was the only girlfriend I ever had. We met an ice cream shop, and I asked if I could take her to the pictures and thankfully, she said yes.

“When we were courting, she taught me how to read and write and all the decisions I made in my life were done after consulting with her first. She was my rock.

“We were so close, and she was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

 

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