There'll be no consolation
For the coal board's washed their hands
Of the blood of those young children
In the town of Aberfan
Pantglas Junior School buried
“My band, Dulahans, rarely plays this song live,” says songwriter Kyle Aughe. “It is a very emotional song to perform.”
When close to an entire generation of a village’s children is swept away “in one horrific moment,” the telling of the tale ravages the nerves. The husband of Aughe’s cousin, living in Swansea, Wales, remarked that Welsh of his generation speak of knowing exactly where they were the moment they heard about the disaster, very much like Americans can recall the moment they learned of John Kennedy’s assassination.
Indeed, typing just the word “Aberfan” in a Google search yields a plethora of stories and first-hand reports, each one just as wrenching as the last. With the following article, we join those impressive ranks. And although Aughe’s haunting song is not one of personal experience, it is among the most touching of accounts. “T’was the twenty-first of October, on a foggy Friday morn
And the children sang things beautiful and bright
Their fathers dug the coal beneath the mountainside above
And grew the tip that shattered all their lives…”
Tip Number 7 after the slide
Thursday night, October 20, 1966, in the tiny mining village of Aberfan in South Wales, children slept soundly in their beds after spending the evening doing their homework and playing. Hard-working fathers were turning in following an exhausting day at the coal mine, which hovered just above the town; equally hard working mothers finished cleaning up the evening meal and straightening up the house before they, too, relaxed into a well-deserved slumber, unaware their lives would change irrevocably in less than 12 hours.
The morning of October 21 rose heavy with mist in the village below Mynydd Merthyr (Merthyr Mountain). The children of Pantglas Junior School got out of bed - some willingly, others had to be persuaded, as kids often do, to get moving so they wouldn’t be late. Whichever the way, they packed themselves up and hit the road to class, where their teachers were already waiting. This was the last day before the half-term holiday, and they were looking forward to the break.
Most of the men in town were already hard at work up on the black face of Mynydd Merthyr, which formed the western flank of the village. For those down in the mine, a mile beneath the surface, all was ink-black, save the small light fighting forth from the safety helmets on their heads. For the workers above, the day was clear. Maneuvering trams full of loose rock and rubbish from below to the crane that would sling it down the mountainside forming “tips,” the men on the “tipping gang” snuck glances below, but their village was lost to sight beneath the fog. Rarely complaining about the brutality of their profession, these toughened men accepted it as a way of life that provided them a means of putting food in their families’ mouths, clothing on their backs, and a sheltering roof above their heads.
At the Pantglas School, the kids, most between the ages of 7 and 10, were gathered for an early morning assembly. Today’s song would be “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” a children’s hymn from 1848, written by Cecil F. Alexander. “How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well,” they sang in their pure pre-adolescent voices. And when the song was over, they headed with their teachers back to their classrooms.
On the broad ridge of Mynydd Merthyr, the labor continued in a non-stop rhythm. After 8 years of shoveling and hauling, the side of the ridge was burdened with millions of cubic meters of coal debris, beneath which sandstone rock was rife with underground springs that trickled ceaselessly.
After the shortened assembly, the children walked the path back to class, eager to get through the day and leave school behind for a while. Laughing and talking, they shuffled into their classrooms and began to take their seats.“For years the townfolk worried ‘bout the spring beneath Merthr Vale
Could it someday bring the slag upon the town?
And on that fateful morning in the mining south of Wales
Five hundred thousand tons came raining down…”
Above them, shortly after 9 o’clock, tip number 7 began to waver. After several days of heavy downpour, the already stressed mountain started to collapse. The men in the tipping gang working the tram ropes watched helplessly in horror as the tip shuddered and began to slide. There was no time to raise an alarm, had they the ability to do so. With visibility at only 164 feet - just over half a football field - they saw the more than 150,000 cubic meters of liquefied rock, mining spoil, and water thunder down the mountain and disappear. In the moments following, the men could only listen helplessly while everything they knew and loved was dragged under.“They heard a distant rumble and it soon became a roar
So quickly that they had no time to flee
The parents and the miners dug frantically in vain
Through tears that made it difficult to see…”
In the aftermath...
In the village it began as a thunderous roar, such as standing right beneath a jet engine would sound. Since no one could see up the mountain for the heavy fog, they had no way of knowing what was approaching. Even if they’d guessed, there was no time to escape. The mountain was moving too fast.
Inside the classrooms of the school, the hanging lights had begun to sway. One reassuring teacher told the kids it was just thunder from the storm. It was then that a suffocating silence settled upon them. Except for the distant violent rumble, for a brief moment or two, the hush was so complete it was as if the air had been sucked right out of the atmosphere. Frozen to their chairs, not a word was spoken in those final seconds before the school was entombed.
The sludge and slurry barreled down with astonishing speed, leaving almost 110,000 cubic meters of its fury on the bottommost portion of the slope, while the remaining 40,000 hurled forward toward the village in a black mass 12 meters (40 feet) deep, gathering velocity with every new surge.
The farm at the end of Moy Road was the first to be swallowed, disappearing beneath the black slag avalanche. At the secondary school near Pantglas, Hugh Watkins, a 28-year-old history and geography teacher, described hearing the slurry “swishing” as it continued past his school, down the street toward Pantglas.
Then, faster than the first startled intake of breath, it swept over the Pantglas School, bursting through windows, tearing down walls, filling eyes, mouths, and lungs, and pulling a sea of small bodies along with it. But even the buildings of the school didn’t cause the mass to pause. Rampaging through the town, it would engulf 20 more homes and buildings before it slowed down.
There is nothing more eerie than the absolute silence which follows a catastrophic event. One surviving boy remembered with clarity the absence of even the birds chirping. Into that consuming quiet, the crisis whistle sounded.
Meanwhile, buried alive, eight-year-old Gaynor Madgwick found a bloodied book and began to read. Carried to the back of the room by “the black” as she tried to outrun it, she awoke to find two dead boys beneath her, and a severed arm on her shoulder. “It was strange,” she wrote in her 1996 book Aberfan: Struggling Out of the Darkness.
“I was convinced it was my brother’s arm. He had been in the next classroom, and it gave me a feeling of peace to think it was him.”
Jeff Edwards, who was also eight, remembers waking up to screams, shouts, and “a dead girl across my shoulder.” With time, though, he said the tortured voices became less and less, until they disappeared altogether.
Outside, workers frantically dug with whatever tools they could find, many used their bare hands, scraping at the muddy slush even after the skin wore from their fingertips. Every able-bodied member of the village was there, for beneath the tons of slag were their children, their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews, and in some cases, their sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers. Breaking only long enough to listen for any sounds of survival beneath, they dug tirelessly as time crept away.
In the book Aberfan, The Days After, A Journey in Pictures,
I.C. Rapoport tells the story of David, who lived with his father on a dairy farm on the side of the village closest to Pantglas, about a half mile outside of Aberfan. Upon hearing of the landslide, David’s father ran to the school and began digging, helping to uncover body after body, when he was suddenly faced with the unspeakable jolt of holding the body of his own lifeless son. As he began up the road, bringing his son’s body to join the others, a nurse grabbed him. “This boy’s alive,” she said.
By the next day there were an estimated 2,000 - 2,500 people, villagers, professional rescue teams, and ordinary people who had traveled many miles to help with the effort. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were there, along with residents of neighboring towns, working shoulder to shoulder to slog through the heaping mass. They brought in bulldozers and mechanical shovels, filling lorries to haul out the muck that had piled up 25 feet high around the remaining walls of the school buildings. Mothers stood shaking on school steps, too deep in shock to function. Toughened men wept. TV reporters couldn’t control their tears while covering the story from the site.
At the end of the week, 116 small bodies and 28 adults had been pulled from the mire. One mother, called to positively identify her child, was shown almost every little girl’s lifeless body before recognizing her own daughter. The gravedigger in Aberfan, whose job it had been for many years to bury the old who had died from natural causes, now found himself working night and day to bury the young. He would go to his own grave haunted by the sight of row upon row of freshly churned earth.
How many in the village survived that day is in question; reports range anywhere from 25 to 145. Some say only 34 children emerged alive from the school. Even after her child was positively identified as a victim, one mother stood just outside her front door, every afternoon for years, waiting for her daughter to come home from school.
Of those students who survived their entombment, many came to feel their friends and classmates who were killed instantly perhaps suffered a kinder fate. Even into their 50s and beyond, some could not bring themselves to talk about that day, or even the incident as a general subject. Many others were held down by fears of darkness and of drowning, of abandonment. One little girl suffered years of insomnia, never leaving her father’s side, not even for the slightest moment. Counseling was such a stigma at the time that few went that route, suffering silently with the crippling memories they did not have the capacity to understand or accept.
One miner lived the rest of his days believing he was responsible, because, as part of his job at the mine, he had helped to create the tip that would kill his grandchildren. The National Coal Board (NCB) was perfectly inclined to allow him and others like him to continue thinking exactly that. They wanted no part of the blame for history’s worst mining disaster. In fact, Lord Robens of Woldingham, PC, chairman of the NCB, upon hearing news of the accident, decided that his plans of being installed as Chancellor of the University of Surrey was more important than a visit to the site. NCB sources, perhaps embarrassed at his actions, wrongly and purposefully told the Secretary of State for Wales that Robens was, indeed, helping with relief efforts by personally directing work in Aberfan.“The crown and her tribunal and the coal board had their say
Empty words that fell on deafened ears
New rules and regulations are not the prime concern
When you’re burying a child of seven years.”
But blame lay squarely on the NCB’s head. That they were legally liable for compensation due to personal injury or property damage was incontestable. But they contested it anyway. Upon [finally] reaching Aberfan, Lord Robens’ assessment of the cause of the slide was “natural unknown springs” under the tips, along with the heavy rainfall, and nothing could have been done to prevent it. Had there been no maps to disprove his defense, he might have emerged cleanly. His argument, however, only proved his sorry character when maps were presented showing springs clearly marked, on top of which the colliery had been directed to pile its tips.
The actions of Robens and the Board’s employees grew ever more despicable. Rather than using NCB funds to pay for the removal of the remaining tips, they appropriated a large amount of money from the public disaster relief fund, essentially stealing money from the survivors themselves to pay for the cleanup and ensure a non-repeat of the tragedy. Of a reported £1,607,000 received from worldwide contributions, an abysmal £500 to £1,000 went directly into the hands of the stricken families, depending on how many children they had lost. Appallingly, there was talk among the Charity Commission for England and Wales of initially withholding any compensation pending investigation into whether or not the parents had been “close” to their deceased children, thereby rendering a verdict on their degree of emotional suffering and loss.
It wasn’t until near the conclusion of a 76-day Tribunal appointed by the Secretary of State for Wales that Robens reluctantly conceded fault on the part of the NCB. On August 3, 1967, the results of the Tribunal were published: “Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board,” noting “total absence of a tipping policy.” Furthermore, it concluded that “the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above.” Regarding warning signs of the dangers existing on the tip, the Tribunal found that many of the witnesses “had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds,” and that, lacking proper education about unstable surface conditions, they had concentrated their attention solely on the underground operations.
Finally, the Tribunal ordered the NCB to pay compensation for personal injuries, fatal or otherwise, and property damage.
In spite of these findings, neither Robens, nor any staff member of the NCB, lost his position or was even demoted.
The Cemetery at Aberfan “Since that day my father’s never mined an ounce of coal
For he lost a son and daughter in the slide
He sees my brother, James, and sister, Margaret, in my eyes
The torment and the grief will not subside.”
In the years since the Aberfan disaster, there have been psychological studies conducted on the long-term effects. One such study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry
in 2003 found Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in at least half of the survivors. The sight of the surviving children caused such anguish in the families who had suffered a loss that the children remained indoors, as they themselves grew to feel guilty for being the ones still living. Parents, too, were tangled deeply in emotional turmoil for sending their children to school that day.
As of 2011, the coal mines in Aberfan are closed, the tips flattened and landscaped over. The valley is green and beautiful, the rivers crystal clear. A memorial garden rests upon the site of the Pantglas school, a plain patch of land marks where tip number 7 stood. The cemetery hosts a long row of gravestones, each decorated with a beautiful concrete arch. There is a section dedicated to the victims containing a memorial with heartrending messages from parents to their children, alongside angry questions and accusations of a God who proved less than benevolent to this small Wales village on October 21, 1966.“Most days the memory lingers, sometimes it starts to fade
Till you see the hollow faces in a crowd
And it brings back the resignation t’will never go away
A generation lost beneath a shroud.”
(“Aberfan” by Kyle Aughe; lyrics reprinted with permission)
~ Shawna Hansen Ortega
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