Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. My father went back to Aberfan today to pay his respects. He was there 50 years ago. Because he’s an amazing Grandad, he wanted to try to make some sense of this tragedy for his grandchildren. Grandchildren who are the same age as those who lost their lives that day. This is his remembrance, in his own words:
The morning of Friday 21 October 1966 was like any other damp, misty autumn morning in the little Welsh mining village of Aberfan. The village children were on their way to Pantglas Junior School, whose playground looked up one of the steep hills which surrounded the village, with its rows of terraced houses, chapels and shops. Housewives were beginning their daily chores, some setting off to catch the bus for a shopping trip to nearby Merthyr Tydfil. Their miner husbands were already underground in local collieries, while those on night shift were trying to get to sleep behind tightly drawn bedroom curtains.
Aberfan, with its population of 3,000, was set in the valley of the River Taff which flowed through the edge of the village, accompanied by the main road which ran from Merthyr Tidfil in the north to Treharris further down the valley. Visible along the floor of the valley were the extensive buildings and winding gear of the large Merthyr Vale Colliery where many of the men from the village worked. On both sides of the valley the land rose steeply to two ranges of hills which overshadowed the village in the valley below – the local children called the steep hills the “mountain”. And it was on the top of the mountain behind Pantglas School that the 19th century colliery owners decided to dump the spoil from the collieries, forming long dark slag heaps. For over a hundred years the slag heaps grew, fed by a never-ending chain of buckets which were carried on an aerial ropeway from the colliery up the hillside to the top of the mountain.
By 9 a.m. on that Friday morning, most of the children had arrived at school, hung up their coats, put their lunch boxes away and were settling down in their classes for the register to be called.
Some children were late for school and were still making their way along Moy Rd, while another group of children were still in the school bus which had been delayed by the morning mist. It was the last school day before the half-term holiday and the children and their teachers were looking forward to the few days break.
Meanwhile on the top of the “mountain” behind the school a colliery engineer was anxiously inspecting the slag heap, where a crane ran along a set of rails on top of the tip. When the crane driver had arrived at work at 7.25 that morning he saw that the tip had sunk by about nine to ten feet, so that the crane and the rails were sunk into a depression in the top of the slag heap. It had been a wet autumn with constant rain and this had destabilised the tip. By 9.00 a.m. the point of the tip had sunk to nearly 20 ft below its normal level. The colliery engineer was standing watching the depression when, just after 9.15, the slag began to slip and suddenly a torrent of water, mud and slurry burst out from the centre of the tip and “with a noise like a jet plane” hurtled down the side of the mountain. And in the direct path of the avalanche at the bottom of the mountain, a few hundred yards away, stood Pantglas School and the terraced houses in Moy Rd.
The 40 ft high semi-liquid avalanche gathered momentum as it rushed down the hill-side, sweeping away two cottages that stood about two hundred yards behind the school. And then it poured over the wall of the playground and slammed into the back of the school, engulfing it and the adjacent houses. Even then the torrent wasn’t halted but poured on into the village, where housewives saw and heard the black wave coming and ran for their lives.
In Pantglas School 116 children and five of their teachers were killed in the disaster – almost half the children in the school. Many survived because their classrooms were on the opposite side of the school from where the avalanche hit – others survived under desks and cupboards when their classrooms collapsed. Soon villagers, mainly mothers who had just seen their children off to school, were scrabbling frantically with their bare hands at the wreckage to release trapped survivors, to be joined by miners from the local collieries as news of the disaster spread and the colliery sirens sounded the alarm. After a few hours a major disaster response was in action with equipment, such as diggers, being brought in. There was a concern that further landslides could occur but this did not deter the rescuers. Suddenly the whole world knew about the little Welsh village of “Aberfan”.
In October 1966 I was a 21 year old student at Aston University in Birmingham, and on this weekend I had gone home to Bristol, most likely to get my laundry done and to enjoy some home cooking. I had hitch-hiked down to Bristol, my normal form of travel, being on a limited student grant. Naturally the events of Aberfan were in everyone’s minds, with regular TV updates and newspaper reports. I remember my mum was particularly upset and tearful about the numbers of children killed. As a boy I had spent several summer holidays in a mining valley in South Wales with one of my friends, David, who lived a few doors down from us. We stayed in the hillside village of Treowen where his nan and aunt lived, and I was always intrigued by the endless chain of buckets transporting slag, day and night, to the spoil heaps on top of the “mountain” on the opposite side of the valley. So I had a natural affinity to this part of Wales and many of the local names were familiar to me.
We were watching a TV report on the late Saturday afternoon when the reporter said that many of the local volunteers at the disaster site, some of whom had been working continuously for more than 24 hours, were becoming exhausted and that fresh volunteers were needed. I immediately said that I would go to help. After some discussion with mum and dad, I put on my rough clothes and my trusty combat jacket, borrowed a few “bob” and set off to Aberfan, some 70 miles away, with my dad’s instructions “not to get in the way” ringing in my ears. From our evening paper I had cut out a small map of Wales, which had an even smaller map of the area around Aberfan in the corner.
Fortunately the train to Newport and Cardiff ran through Stapleton Rd Station, which was a few hundred yards from my home, so before long I was on a train travelling under the Severn Tunnel on my way to South Wales. Emerging from Newport Station I saw a bus going to Mountain Ash which, as my small map showed me, was a town in the valley next to the Merthyr Vale, about 8 miles from Aberfan. So my journey continued, looking through the steamed up windows of an old fashioned single-decker bus, travelling along the dark roads and mining valleys – I must have reached Mountain Ash around 9 o’clock. I had never been there before, but someone pointed me in the direction of Aberfan and I set off walking along the road, with my hitch-hiking thumb hopefully extended. I was not long outside of Mountain Ash when a white van pulled up and the driver asked where I was going. When he heard I was on my way to Aberfan he told me to hop in. He was in fact an engineer who was also going to Aberfan to sort out a problem with a digger that was involved in the rescue effort. So a short time later I had arrived at my destination.
Walking through the dark streets of the village it was immediately evident where the centre of activity was, as the whole area around the school and damaged houses was floodlit. I made my way towards the school and asked a policeman where I could best help. He pointed out a building where he said provisions and equipment was being stored and transported to the rescue site. The building was in fact the village cinema, a small theatre with steeply banked rows of tip-up seats.
Many of the rows were packed with a whole range of goods, foods, clothing and blankets, much of which had been donated. I reported to the people in charge who provided me with a NCB hard hat and asked if I would carry long boxes of bananas up to one of the chapels in the village which was being used as a rest and refreshment centre. There were several chapels in the village, two of which were being used as temporary mortuaries. So I made several trips carrying food to the Smyrna Baptist Chapel, which had been set up as a first-aid centre and as a place for volunteers to rest and get refreshments.
I then decided to join the other volunteers helping on the school site, so I made my way around the back of the school, a little way up the hill from the playground. There was still concern that further landslips could occur, so I joined a chain of men who were passing sand bags up the hill. These sandbags were filled with slag that was being dug out of the school and the houses buried in the avalanche – they were being passed up the hill and put in place to minimise further earth movement. I found myself in what seemed like a brightly lit amphitheatre looking down at the rear of the school. By this time the school rooms had all been cleared of debris and I was looking at the interior wall of a classroom whose back wall had been crushed by the river of slurry. There in the floodlights were all the normal things you would expect to see on a classroom wall – a blackboard, children’s paintings, lesson illustrations. But the biggest picture, and one I can still see in my mind’s eye, was part of a road safety lesson – a large policeman with his hand up indicating “Stop” to traffic. I thought that it was tragically ironic that the Stop signal had no effect on the avalanche that hurtled down onto the school.
So I worked through the night, passing sand-bags up the line. Below me in the chain was a middle-aged clergyman, wearing his dog collar and with his trousers tucked into his wellington boots. I never did find out where he came from or what his denomination was – we didn’t talk much and I imagine a “man-of-god” could not have much to say in this scene of tragedy. It also occurred to me later that if our sandbags didn’t work we were in the direct path of any further landslide, so perhaps his presence was a blessing.
We worked in this large pool of light and because of the intense surrounding darkness it was impossible to make out what was around us. And then, possibly around mid-night, something magical seemed to happen. High up in the darkness behind us a single light appeared, like a star. And then another light appeared, and then more, until an irregular string of lights had formed, like lights on a Christmas tree – and the string was moving, snaking its way down towards us. It took me a while to realise that the lights were the lamps in miners’ helmets and this was a group of miners who had finished their shift in a colliery in the adjacent valley and who were making their way to Aberfan by the shortest route, over the top of the mountain, to help out in the rescue effort.
Later that night there was another memorable moment. Working in the pool of artificial light near the bottom of the valley, it was impossible to make out the dark hillside opposite from the black night sky. Slowly at dawn the top of the hillside was outlined by a faint pinkish glow which gradually developed into what I would call “sky blue pink”. The hillside was still black so the lightening sky produced a precise skyline. Gradually, as the dawn lilac glow spread, we were able to make out our surroundings, including the hillside behind us scarred by the wide path of mud and slurry snaking down from the slag heap.
In the early hours of Sunday morning I decided to take a break and headed for the chapel to which I had taken the bananas on the previous evening. Here I was greeted by other volunteers only too willing to help those coming from the disaster site. W.R.V.S., Red Cross and St John members were there to provide food and drink, first aid and support. The chapel was a typical non-conformist one, with a raised central wooden pulpit and minister’s desk, and rows of wooden pews – it seemed an appropriate place for such caring work. I was sat down, my dirty shoes removed (a rather biblical happening), and I was plied with food and cups of tea. Everyone was very helpful, even though they had themselves been on-duty through the night.
After resting for an hour I returned to the disaster site, this time joining a group of miners digging their way through the back of a house adjacent to the school. It seemed that the house had been “drowned” by the semi-liquid slurry that had filled up the rooms. As the men dug into the ground floor of the house they were coming across chairs and other furniture. They uncovered a cupboard and found a collection of coins, mainly pennies, and passed them to me for safe keeping as they dug them out. I learnt that somewhere in this house were an elderly couple who were at home when the avalanche struck. I noticed a man standing a few yards away behind us watching us at work – I later learnt that he was the son of the elderly couple still in the house, waiting for the grim discovery of their bodies.
I worked here throughout the Sunday morning until about midday, when I decided it was time to make my way home – I had not slept for more than 36 hours. After a quick snack in the chapel, I headed out of Aberfan, walking through village which had been thrust into the world’s attention 48 hours previously. Compared with the hectic scenes around the school, the rest of the village was strangely quiet. An old lady was stood in the doorway of her cottage near the edge of the village – she had seen her village subjected to an unimaginable horror and had watched helplessly as it was “invaded” by people, press, vehicles and equipment. Seeing me walking by obviously tired, she asked if I’d like a cup of tea. Although I was keen to get on, I realised that this was her attempt to say “thank you” to those who had come to help but who had flooded past her door without stopping. So I accepted her kind invitation and went inside for a cup of tea and some cake in her little living room.
After a while I thanked her, said goodbye and headed out onto the main road, hoping to hitch-hike my way back to Bristol. I was soon picked up by a van heading to Gloucester who dropped me at the roundabout near Chepstow, close to the road heading for the M4 and the Severn Bridge, which had only opened the month before. By the roundabout was a policeman who was stationed here to direct any traffic coming over the bridge and heading for Aberfan. When he learnt that I had come from the disaster village and was heading for Bristol he immediately stopped the next car heading for the Severn Bridge and asked them if they would give me a lift. The driver agreed, despite the fact I was covered in mud and coal dust, and, after crossing the bridge, he kindly dropped me off at the M4 junction near Frenchay Hospital. I knew the hospital well, having worked there in my student holidays as a Nursing Auxiliary, so I decided to call in and scrounge a cup of tea. I was greeted by the canteen staff who remembered me, and provided tea and cake. They also offered me the use of the staff shower, an offer I gladly accepted as we didn’t have a bathroom at home. So suitably refreshed inside and out, I left the hospital and caught the No 10 bus to Eastville, arriving home in the late Sunday afternoon, 24 hours after I had left on the Saturday. It was too late to head back to Birmingham, and anyway I was worn out. So after a good night’s sleep I returned to University on Monday.
It took several years to erase the physical scars of the tragedy in Aberfan but the emotional scars and memories could never be erased. The ruins of Pantglas school were demolished and a memorial garden constructed on the site. A section of Aberfan cemetery was dedicated to most of those who lost their lives in the disaster marked by a series of Portland stone arches. The slag heaps were slowly removed from the hillside behind the village and the area landscaped and planted with trees. Merthyr Vale Colliery closed in 1989 and now very little remains of the years when “King Coal” dominated the valley and the lives of those who lived there.
The photo at the head of this piece shows the stone arches which mark the graves of the 116 children and 28 adults killed in the disaster