On June 24, 2020, the UK emerged from the first coronavirus lockdown and for most people, a sense of normality slowly crept over the horizon. But for Jessica Williams, her husband, and their two children, their lives were completely transformed in the worst possible way.
The day was no different to any other, Jess had spent the scorching summer morning out with her two boys, Reuben, five at the time, and two-year-old Elliot, before making their way back to the family home on Church Road, Seven Sisters. They arrived just after 2pm in time to meet the boys’ father and Jess’ partner Michael as he finished work.
From the outside, their terraced house looked as it had been left, nothing was amiss. However, within minutes, a freak gas explosion would reduce the entire structure to nothing but rubble. The explosion took with it the life the family had always known.
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The explosion shook the tiny mining village of just over 2,000 people, both physically and emotionally. Two neighbouring properties were damaged and 14 houses were temporarily evacuated. The epicentre of the blast, 77 Church Road, was almost completely demolished.
As those closest to the scene – neighbours and builders working nearby – rushed to the devastation unfolding in front of them, they were faced with the horrific realisation that Jess and both children were trapped inside. Miraculously, despite being buried under tonnes of rubble, household possessions, and surrounded by patches of fires, Jess and the boys survived.
Four months later – a month of which was spent in an induced coma – the young mother spoke in painstaking detail of the exact moment which changed her family’s life forever.
Jess was treated for a punctured lung, several broken ribs and her kidneys were failing. She also suffered serious burns to 70% of her body with her injuries meaning that she had to learn how to walk and talk again.
As well as the coma, she had a tracheostomy which is a procedure that creates an opening in the throat to allow air to enter a person’s lungs. Because of this, Jessica was unable to speak, swallow or eat.
Now almost two years on, the teaching assistant and her family are still dealing with the devastating impacts of the huge gas explosion that destroyed their home and left them with serious injuries. All three have undergone multiple surgeries since the blast, with the boys – Reuben now seven, and Elliot three – expected to need regular operations until they reach adulthood. Jessica has also had to come to terms with the mental implications of the incident.
“I still don’t understand how we made it out”
Speaking to Wales Online, she said: “We’re doing really well, considering everything we went through and how we were, we have come on remarkably. Both myself and the boys have had further surgery, we’ve needed skin releases and things,” she said. “But it is just never-ending you know, the boys will need further operations throughout their childhood as they grow.
“So even though we are doing well it is just continuous really, but we are doing well, they [doctors] have said to wait about a year before the next operation so we are trying not to think of it.
“It’s hard when you need further operations because it just brings it back again, it’s hard to move on when you’re having surgery all the time.”
Around 70% of Jess’s body was covered in serious burns after the explosion, and she has had multiple skin grafts and surgeries since. And yet perhaps surprisingly it is her hand, and fingers, which have been the cause of some of the more persistent injuries.
“I have had an operation on my finger and it is fused in one place now. When you’re in a bandage for so long it all fuses up. It fused in a hook position so I needed that straightened, it’s stuck in that position now but at least it’s in a better position.” She also had to have continuous skin grafts as the treatments kept failing. Within the space of two months, she had to undergo three different attempts at skin grafts on her hand.
“In the end, they had to leave it close up naturally which has left a bigger scar and it is tight again now. So I might have to have that looked at again,” she said.
“It’s crazy, when you think of burns you just think of your skin but all of the joints and everything tightens up. It’s the best of a bad situation, it’s not great but it could be a lot worse. I’ve got to take what I can really.”
As a result of the explosion, both boys spent three weeks in a specialist hospital in Bristol where they were treated for burns which have affected around 28% of their bodies. Jess says that despite having undergone several surgeries since, the youngsters are “incredibly resilient.”
“As their skin grows and tightens it will need to be looked at. When they were in hospital after it happened they were in bed for weeks so all people could give them was iPads to watch, so their wrists sort of got stuck like that. Anyone else would have been fine but because of the grafts, they sort of tightened like that.
“So they’ve had to have little chunks taken out to straighten it again. It’s never final and done. And as they get older it keeps tightening and stretching.”
The family had lived on Church Road for five years before the incident. They had moved there when Reuben was one, and it was the only home Elliot had ever known.
“I was really worried about them having the operations as it might bring things back, especially Reuben as he remembers everything,” said Jess. “But in fairness, they took it so well, they just got on with it. They’re doing amazing. I think children are so resilient. If you didn’t see their burns you wouldn’t know anything had happened to them.
“Reuben talks about it because he obviously remembers it, there’s been quite a few points over the last two years that he’s brought it up. Elliot hasn’t, he would tell people that he had his burns from falling over in the park.”
Jess said she has been seeing a psychologist who has emphasised how important it is to explain to the boys what happened. She said: “We have started to say that his burns are because his house exploded and explain to him. I think long term it will help him mentally.” She has also struggled mentally with the aftermath of the explosion and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result.
She said: “I came out of the hospital and I was plodding along and healing and just focusing on trying to get myself better and then it got to the year anniversary and I think that hit me then and I had a really bad few weeks.
“I have been diagnosed with PTSD then which is not surprising. I have been having therapy and I am in a much better place now. I’ve gone back to work but I have reduced my hours, I was full time but so much has changed in our lives. I still need operations and check-ups in the future so I think going back full time would be a bit too ambitious.
“It’s never-ending, it’s always going to be there. You know I still remember every detail. You can either think of it as really negative and let everything slip or we can carry on and try as best as we can. I’m really into quotes I think they help and there’s one that says ‘it’s not what happens to you that defines you, it’s how you deal with it’ and I really try and live by that.
“I try and be as positive as I can, we are all still here after all. I still don’t understand how we did make it out. People say ‘you are so strong’ but I’ve got to be, there is no other option. The boys need me.”
Jess has also had to overcome the mental struggle of the time spent away from her “babies” while she spent four months in hospital. At the time of the blast, Elliot was just two-years-old and was still very attached to his mother.
“He had literally turned two the week before. It still haunts me that, at that point, I carried him everywhere, he was still my baby. And something just told me that day to put him on the sofa, because If I had carried him to the oven with me he would not be with me today. I am so thankful that something told me to put him down and tell them both to stay there. He was so so tiny, it’s insane,” she said.
“When the accident happened he had just turned two, he was still in nappies, still had his dummy he was my baby, and because of the burns on him and the blisters he rejected his dummy and they put pants on him because it was comfier so I came home from the hospital and my baby was not a baby anymore.
“It was heartbreaking. When he turned three it was really difficult. Even though I was only away from them for 14 weeks, it feels even longer because he was a baby, and all of a sudden he was a little boy.”
On the day of the explosion, Jessica’s fiancé Michael was at work. When he returned home he was presented with an unthinkable scene. Where his home once stood – in the row of terraced houses – was just a gap and a mound of bricks. He had no clue about the condition his family was in.
“He was in a bit of a bad place himself,” said Jess. “He lost everything himself and at the start he had to sort everything with the boys himself. It was hard for him, he has literally been my nurse, he has done it all, and he has been amazing.
“I didn’t have it easy at all in hospital but I didn’t see the boys. He saw them in their worst state ever, it can’t have been easy for them all.
“I think because he looked after them straight away and he kind of saved them that day and was in Bristol with them, and when I came out of hospital I looked so different, for a while they only wanted him which was so hard.”
While Jess is now on the mend, she still has to moisturise her scars three times a day and can’t spend too much time in the sun because she can’t regulate her body temperature. “I’m not quite back to normal strength because I had to learn to walk and things. I still get tired easier than I used to, I’m getting there.”
“You see it and you think it’s almost impossible that anyone would have survived that”
“It’s hard to describe the noise, but you could feel the noise and the shock going through your body and it was kind of as if your own house shook. It was a phenomenal blast.” Jeff Davies lives around 200 yards from where Jess’ house on Church Road stood.
Within minutes of the explosion he, alongside a handful of others, were at what was left of the property. “I couldn’t believe what we were seeing and I was just praying nobody was in that house. You see it and you think it’s almost impossible that anyone would have survived that,” said the 52-year-old development manager.
Church Road is the main road running through Seven Sisters. The explosion, and the subsequent road closure, split the village in half. It brought it both to a complete standstill, and at the same time, a flurry of activity to bring Jess and her family to safety. Jeff was one of the first people at the scene.
He remembers the harrowing mission of bringing Jess out of the debris. “I could hear Jess screaming. It wasn’t as if we were entering a property as the property was almost demolished, but there were some free standing walls and we started clearing some debris that was around jess making sure nothing else would fall.
“I remember seeing her face and her looking up at me. She was very very brave. She was terrified obviously and trapped at that point and asking for her boys. That concerned me immensely because you knew then there was another two people in the property.”
The boys, who were nearer the front of the house when the explosion happened, were rescued by others on the other side of the wreckage. “I couldn’t truthfully answer her in all honesty,” he said, “so I just said ‘yes they’re all fine don’t worry’ but it was a white lie if I’m honest.”
Jess was trapped under the family’s American-style fridge, which in hindsight, went a long way to protect her. Jeff said, “it bridged above her and made a small cavity. And if it wasn’t for that all the rubble will have been laying on top of her, she would’ve been buried alive you know.”
Jeff, alongside several others – Cameron Nation, Leighton Williams, Stephen Lewis and Kevin O’Sullivan – has been honoured with bravery awards from South Wales Police for their work in freeing Jess and the boys from the rubble on the day of the explosion.
Stephen Lewis, who owns Call In Coffee Shop and Fish Bar in Seven Sisters was working in his garden when he heard the explosion. He said that “straight away you knew something bad had happened”.
He said he was one of the first at the property and was faced with the “devastation.” He said: “I couldn’t really believe it, it was a shocking moment, there was just a pile of rubble there. I went down into the garden and there were flames coming out from inside the building, there were fires here there and everywhere, water squirting from the pipes and as you got closer you could hear Jess.”
Both Stephen and Jeff used to serve in the fire service and said that some of the skills they retained helped in their response. Similarly to Jeff, he said the miraculous placement of where the fridge fell probably went a long way in saving Jess’ life.
“We managed to move some debris away from her, a few others had come by then and we made a sort of chain to hand the debris back and away from her. We were doing that for probably about 10 minutes but then somebody shouted from the front that the kids were safe and that calmed her down a bit.”
Stephen said they then used some timber from the wreckage to prise the fridge from Jess, creating a cavity in which she unbelievably managed to escape herself, unaided. He said: “We doused her with water to cool her off. It was unbelievable.”
Leighton Williams, also honoured by the bravery award, was building bungalows on Martyns Avenue, the street which runs adjacent to Church Road when the explosion happened. He was manoeuvring a digger at the time and initially thought he had hit something.
“I just sort of let the controls go as I thought I hit something, then one of the boys with me said ‘there’s a massive explosion down there I can see the plume of dust’, so we just ran down there and I saw Reuben outside with a friend of mine who is a nurse and realised whose house it was.”
Leighton has been a member of the fire service for almost 23-years and said when he initially saw all of the debris across the road he was expecting to see a lorry crash or similar.
“It was like something out of a film,” he said. “There were bricks and mortar all over the road. I have been in the fire service 23 years coming up and I was expected to see an articulated lorry crashed into a wall or a house from the debris across the road and then I came around the corner and obviously there was nothing left of the house. You read about stuff like that usually, you don’t see stuff like that.”
In a now closed investigation, South Wales Police concluded that the huge explosion was most likely caused by a “combination of ageing LPG gas and environmental conditions”. LPG stands for Liquid Pressure Gas – meaning gas that is stored in cylinders or bottles as opposed to gas that is supplied through mains pipes. The explosion was likely caused by a combination of old gas cylinders and hot weather.
“For one gas bottle to be able to create that amount of damage it does make you sit back and think ‘really’,” said Leighton.
Somehow Jess managed to free herself from the wreckage after the fridge was lifted and walk up the dozen or so stairs in her back garden. Something she says she still can’t quite understand how she managed.
“It was incredible to see her get up and to see her stand up. Don’t get me wrong she was burnt and in a bad way but I thought then ‘waw, she’s going to be alright,” said Leighton.
“After seeing that I actually didn’t think at the time it was as bad as we later found out it to be, and that she would spend all that time in hospital with the burns that she had. The burns are obviously deeper than what you realise.”
After the family were transferred over to the emergency services Leighton went back to the site where he was working, and like most of the village was “in a daze” for the rest of the day.
“I remember thinking I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. You look at something like that and they’re walking out and it doesn’t seem logical. It’s a good outcome and luckily they live to tell the tale and they will get the house back.”
“The community wrapped itself around them”
After the explosion, a section of Church Road was closed off overnight as safety checks were carried out. As a result, 14 homes were evacuated. Jeff, who was one of the first people on the scene, is also the chairman of Seven Sisters Rugby Club and arranged for that to be a base for people looking for information and also somewhere for refuge.
“I was kind of a bit in shock myself but adrenaline was flowing. I am chairman of the local rugby club as well so that became a bit of a refuge for people and was giving updates to people down there,” said Jeff.
“It became apparent then that a couple of neighbours who wouldn’t be allowed back to their houses needed medication so we spoke to the local surgery and chemist and they kept the local chemist open for people to go down and get their medication.”
As horrific as the explosion was, Jeff said it has shown how the tiny community is able to come together in a time of need. A Facebook group following the rebuild of the property has a following of over 500 members, and over £25,000 was donated to rebuild the damaged properties.
“One thing I have learned from the day is when the chips are down and in events as serious as this that the community spirit still stands even though we don’t see it on a daily basis. When there was a cry for help the community came through and that was really pleasing to see.
“The rebuild of the property has now started and it’s nice to see lots of builders and contractors offering their services for very little or nothing so hopefully the family can move back to the property and get on with their lives. The community wrapped itself around them.”
The re-build is now well underway, with work to clear the site and assess the damage starting just a month after the explosion. Jess says the family are “blown away” by the kindness of the community.
“When I came home from the hospital and people said there had been so much support, I don’t think I realised just how much support there was and has been,” said Jess.
“I just haven’t got the words, to be honest, it’s incredible the amount people have helped. Even now two years on there are still new people coming forward. It is just crazy how much people have helped us. There’s so much bad in the world and you hear things like this where people have been so kind, it just blows my mind. I literally don’t have the words.”
“They’re rebuilding our lives, not just our home”
In the weeks after the explosion, work began on the site of 77 Church Road to clear the debris and make what was left of the property – as well as adjacent 75 and 79 – safe. A plan soon emerged that the tens of thousands of pounds raised to support the family would be used to rebuild their home.
Dozens of builders and tradesmen came forward with offers to help with the rebuild, named locally as The Church Road “Rebuild by Kindness” project. One person who has been involved in the work, almost since the beginning has been Huw Davies from Ian Davies plant, in Crynant.
Huw said the company does a lot of reactive work with the council and so were asked to take on the redevelopment and clearance of the property. However, amongst the debris of bricks and mortar left behind at the site, all of the family’s possessions were also among the wreckage. Huw spent over a week trawling through with a digger to try and recover some of Jess’ belongings.
“I went up to go and take the house down but all their sentimentals were still in there. Everything we came across we recovered,” said Huw. “I picked it all out with a machine as we couldn’t go in there because it was dangerous. I had the grabber on the machine and we went through the house brick by brick.”
Miraculously, among the wreckage, Huw came across the family’s goldfish, which by some miracle had survived. “We kept as many clothes, photos, and belongings as much as we could,” he said. “It usually takes a few days to knock a house down but there it took over a week because we went through it quietly.
“Every day Jess’s father was coming down and having a look at everything we found that day. When you’ve got a 20-tonne excavator and you’re trying to pick out photos it does take some time.”
Huw is now part of the rebuild and as well as clearing the property has done the footings as well as redoing the concrete slabs on the floor of the development. “
“It’s in our valley, isn’t it. If something like that ever happened to me I’d want someone to help me so even though I didn’t know them it felt like I had to do it, it felt right.
“It’s a hell of a good feeling to be involved in something like this. I would do it for anyone. When people are struggling and to see everyone pulling together it’s nice.”
Almost two years on since the explosion, Jess and her family are still living in a house around a mile away from Church Road. While for a long time she was unable to visit the site of her previous home, Jess and the boys have since been back and are quietly involved in the rebuilding process.
Due to the magnitude of the explosion, there was also extensive damage to both properties on either side of Jess’ house, the family say it was their request that rebuilding these took priority. As a result, and due to further coronavirus lockdowns, work on 77 Church Road started slowly, but with the main timber frame now in place progress is starting to be made.
What do you think of this sense of Welsh spirit? Pass on your thoughts and comments to Jessica in the comments box
While still difficult, Jess is now able to revisit the site and is coming to terms with moving back when work is completed. She said: “I used to go past, there would be a gap there and you’d have a quick glance and you were gone and I didn’t think much of it.
“But now there is a structure there it’s like ‘oh it’s happening now’, so I think I am just going to try and go there as much as I can during the rebuild process because I don’t think it’s going to be easy just moving back there.”
Although the majority of the work is being done free of charge from the fundraising pot, Jess and her family acknowledge this will only go so far and decided to pay for the timber frame themselves. While the outside of the property has to structurally remain the same as it was, the family have asked if it is possible to alter some of the inside layouts in the hopes returning will be easier.
“Obviously things just cost money don’t they and people are already doing things for free. So we have paid for the timber frame to be built because we just thought if we can pay for that, once that’s start it’s easier to progress,” said Jess.
“I have asked for a few changes, like having doors in different places and things like that,” she said. “Because the accident happened in the kitchen, I need a different kind of layout mentally for me. I don’t want to walk in and have visions of exactly how it was. I am hoping I will be able to live there a bit easier after that.
“We’ve been trying to talk to the boys about how they want their bedrooms and things so I am trying to make it a positive for them and they feel okay moving back there.”
While the family are looking forward to being able to return to Church Road, Jess acknowledges it’s not going to be an easy transition back to somewhere which holds so many lovely family memories, but also painful ones of the day of the explosion.
“Obviously, I am going to try and live there and that is exactly what we want to do, but I think until I am there and living there again I’m not sure how I am going to feel. Because I can so vividly remember how the accident happened, it’s not going to be easy going back there.
“It has been hard. It is still crazy to think that it has happened. I don’t think I will ever accept it or come to terms that it has happened. It’s been really hard. And just like seeing it [the house rebuild] now, It’s really overwhelming.”
Because of this Jess is trying to be as involved and visit the site as she can, in the hopes it will ease the uncertainty of moving back. She said: “We are really grateful for everything everyone is doing but that was our home and we can’t move on fully until it’s done.
“So I think if I slowly get used to it being built that’ll make it easier. Because we do want to move back there, our lives are kind of on standstill at the minute until we are back there getting used to it.
“But we are just so grateful for what everyone has done and is doing. They’re rebuilding our lives at the end of the day, not just our home. This is our lives and we will never be able to repay people. We are so grateful.”