Three months ago, on 23 February 2016, the decommissioned boiler house at the Didcot power station collapsed. While the reason for the collapse is still unclear, the consequences were devastating as the demolition men were working on the ground floor of the building when the massive structure dropped.
Nearly 50 men were injured, four were killed and three of those four are still buried in the rubble. Three months on and three are still buried in the rubble.
Like many of us, I heard of the disaster on the news. I felt shock and horror that it happened and great sympathy for those injured and killed. After a few days, as the media interest faded, I assumed the men had been rescued, or recovered and laid to rest. Sadly, my assumption was totally wrong.
I first realised two of the men were from Rotherham when I was contacted by a relative telling me that the rescue work was not going ahead. My initial thought was this is clearly incorrect information. After all, this was a major disaster. I watched TV footage of the emergency services scouring the site. I was in the Chamber when the Minister, Mike Penning, was visibly moved by visiting the wreckage and praised all those involved in getting the men to hospital. Yes, the rescue happened, but only for five days, then it stopped while the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) waited for RWE (nPower) who owned the site, to present a recovery plan.
It took three weeks before the recovery started again. Three weeks of asking, pleading, shouting and then eventually using Parliamentary leverage to get the recovery plan signed off.
Can you begin to imagine what those three weeks were like for the loved ones?
Initially, there was the horror of having to ring round hospitals to see if your husband was one of the 'lucky' ones to make it out alive. Calling their work mates, asking: "have you seen them? and "did they get out? Then, eventually, many hours later, getting the call from the police confirming what you were starting to suspect, Ken Cresswell, John Shaw and Chris Huxtable from Wales are all missing. But there is always hope! These were smart, experienced demolition men. Surely they would have found somewhere safe to hide when the building came down. They might be hurt, but they will be alive. It's just a matter of time for them to be found.
While the initial rescue was going on, the families rallied round, supported each other and stayed positive; their men would be found. Then the search stopped. One week passed, then two weeks - but hope is strong, even after two weeks people are pulled out of rubble alive, but why aren't they looking for them? Three weeks....
When the search eventually started it wasn't a rescue operation any more, it was a recovery operation. The change of one word ripped hope from those families.
Now, three months on, all the families have to hold on to is that their men will be returned home. But even that is looking remote. The search has stopped again. The area of the site that HSE felt could be safely searched has now been cleared. Nothing.
The families now have another agonising wait while the standing part of the structure is prepared to be brought down through use of explosives. There is no guarantee that the building won't fall on the existing rubble, burying the men still further. It's quite possible that the remaining standing structure could also collapse out of the blue - making laying the necessary explosives inside it probably the most dangerous demolition job ever undertaken. Finally, the worst possible scenario is that the building does not completely collapse - which would prevent any future search.
The families of the missing men have behaved with dignity and grace throughout but they have been forced to put their grief to one side while they have had to battle with the authorities to get the search off the ground, be consulted and even be kept informed. The families are the victims just as much as their men. I find it obscene that these victims are having to fight every step of the way to be heard and respected. I genuinely did not realise that corporations could treat people so badly - but that is a topic for another day.
Right now, I ask you to send some hope to the Huxtable, Shaw and Cresswell families in the hope that their men are finally returned to them. Hope is the most precious gift, one we often only recognise when it is gone.
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