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Aberfan Disaster, 50 Years on, 1966-2016

Aberfan: What Happened?

The story is well documented, so I won't go into the details except to say that on a misty Friday morning on 21 October 1966, in the village of Aberfan in Wales, a farm, a row of terraced houses and a school were engulfed by a catastrophic tidal wave of old coal mine debris, leaving 116 children dead and 28 adults. 144 people in total died.

  • Children were buried alive in their classrooms at school.
  • Adults were squashed to death and buried in their own homes.

While that's very sad, VERY sad, the wider story is much more sad as the legacy of that day is still haunting the minds of the survivors to this day.

When somebody dies, tragically and unexpectedly, those around will mourn. They will never forget, but they have the ability to move on, to rebuild their altered life. This was a luxury not endowed upon the people of Aberfan.

In just a few brief moments their lives were changed forever. Children dead, parents dead, houses swept away ... and still all the aftermath to be cleared away and, somehow, life to carry on, but never "as usual".

Aberfan 1966, Digging for Bodies Buried in the School

Digging Your Child Out of the Black Pile

When the school was engulfed by a 30-40' high tidal wave of black coal rubbish and debris, moving at about 50mph, it knocked down the back wall, smashed the windows, then it kept coming. The thick liquid, laden with rocks, trees and anything else it'd picked up en-route, smashed through the classrooms, round the outside of the building, then round and off down the street.

This was a liquid at first, but once the debris had come to a halt, the water kept running, it quickly set quite hard in a black sludge - buried beneath it at depths of 2-20' were chidrens' bodies. And the people to dig them out, hoping to find their child still protected and alive, were the fathers, grandfathers, uncles, neighbours and other school children who were immediately on the scene.

The community literally had to dig out their own children's bodies, hoping that they'd find a miracle buried under the pile of black stuff that'd set almost like concrete.

Over time others came, but they had to be called, they had to arrive. A radio "shout out" was put out and people came from miles around after grabbing a spade. It all had to be dug out, by hand. It wasn't long before 2000 helpers, rescuers, locals, residents, parents and everybody was using spades, passing buckets and digging, digging, digging. Tirelessly. Lives really did depend on it, they hoped.

Parents were digging for their children, for their brothers' and sisters' children, for their neighbours' children. Nothing was going to stop them. Some found their child, dead, but still had to carry on digging for the children of others. We're all in this together.... has never been so true.

Your child was dead, but your brother's child might still be found; your workmate's child was still in there; your uncle's girls were to be found. Dig, dig, dig, you can't stop.

Last Aberfan Survivor

The last survivor was found at 11am that same morning. While others were dug out, alive, over the following 12 hours, they subsequently died, so the last child to be dug out of the slurry, that lived, was a boy called Jeff Edwards. You'll see Jeff often in survivor stories as he ended up becoming the Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil. Indeed, in a bizarre twist, Jeff discovered 35 years later that the man who carried him away from the ruins of the school was a work colleague - and he was also the Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil at some point! I said it was a small community :)

Every Family Affected

In Aberfan, the agony has gone on every day since. Every family in the village was affected. Every family. Many of the community were inter-related across generations of inter-marrying. You lived in the same road as your brother and your spouse's sister was round the corner, with their children; your parents were 2-3 roads away, your neighbours you went to school with. Everybody knew each other. This was a small town.

For those without children, their neighbours will have lost a child, or have siblings who lost a child. Even going to work, the majority of your work colleagues will have been directly impacted by the disaster. Colleagues might never return to work. Other colleagues had close family members who were lost.

Visit the local pub and everybody there will have been impacted.

Some people also lost elderly parents, and some lost their houses entirely.

2 Men Lost Everything:

  • Aberfan: The Man Who Lost Everything
    Aberfan: The Man who Lost Everything was a phrase coined for local resident John Collins in the mining village of Aberfan in 1966. But there was a second man who also lost everything ...

The Men Who Lost Everything

There were two local residents who lost everything. The reports say one man was known as "the man who lost everything" as he lost his house, wife and two children when their house was swept away - he didn't even have a photo left as a reminder of his family. There was a second man who also lost everything. Their eventual outcomes were different, I'll write about those two separately.

Houses Swept Away Too

With the main focus being on the children in the school, it's easy to forget that before the coal tip hit the school it'd already flattened and wiped out two farmhouse cottages, killing the occupants, a grandmother and her two grandchildren.

At the same time that it hit the school, it also engulfed a terrace of houses next door - smashing into the back of them and pushing all the people and contents out through the front.

The houses that were engulfed were demolished, as was the school, but the scar of the demolition site was still in evidence and a blot in the centre of the village for more than a year - until a memorial garden was put in place where the school had been, using the original classroom walls as the memorial garden walls.

Going out and interacting with others, you'll have just continually met with others who had the tragedy visit their doorstep. Bereaved individuals and families all around you. Where's the "healing" for these poor people? There was no escape, no easy rebuilding of their lives.

Everybody will have been at different stages of the healing process, at different stages of their grief. Conversations will have been dominated by the omnipresent tragedy.

Many of the mothers would make a daily, sometimes twice daily, visit to the grave of their child or children. If you looked out of the window you'd see them and you'd know where they were going to.

Very sad times.

The community was, naturally, divided into two camps of those who had lost a child and those who hadn't. Not everybody lost a child. Some will have had adult children, out at work; others will have had older children at different schools and others will have been nursing babies and toddlers, who weren't old enough to be at school that day.

It's hard for somebody with all their children to understand the grief of somebody who has just lost one, or two, of theirs - and maybe cousins lost too.

Aberfan disaster children's cemetery

Aberfan disaster children's cemetery

Aberfan Cemetery: White Arches

Every day those who lost children would have been able to see the graveyard where all their bodies were laid, many of those in one mass burial on 27 October 2016. When the white arches went up they'll have stood bright and clear on the valley hillside.

These rows of white arches, each representing a child that died, are striking. The individual graves differ, depending on the desires of the parents who buried their child. They have different gravestones, pots and inscriptions.

Mike Jenkins, White Arches: He Loved Light, Freedom and Animals

He Loved Light, Freedom and Animals

There's always one grave that really breaks your heart and for me it's the grave of Richard Philip Goldsworthy, who was aged 10 when he was buried alive at school. Most of the gravestones have religious leanings, "safe in the arms of Jesus", or notes that the child and parents will meet again in Heaven.

Instead of this, Richard's parents chose this simple engraving that really cuts to the personal side of this poor little chap. You can just imagine him! You can feel the grief of his parents and how they really loved him to have thought of writing such words to remember him by. "He Loved Light, Freedom and Animals" was the boy ... and they wanted the world to know something about him.

Indeed, this simple inscription has inspired poems that are even compared and discussed in school English lessons! A poet called Mike Jenkins wrote the poem that I find the most haunting. Mike Jenkins was simply visiting the graveyard, saw the gravestone and inscription and was inspired to think about Richard and immortalise him in a haunting poem that captures the spirit of this small boy.

Many tragedies enable the victims to move on. The tragedy didn't occur on their doorstep; the tragedy only included their family from their town. The residents of Aberfan had to live with the Aberfan disaster daily, in every interaction and on every street. Every time they opened their curtains they'd see somebody who was also affected - or NOT!

They couldn't move away; many were living in their family homes, where their families had lived for generations. Many were living in the houses their grandparents bought. It was all too interconnected for most to just up sticks and leave. And how can you leave the grave of your child behind, knowing that others could still see it and visit easily daily. The bonds were too strong to break. Even today, 50 years on, some of the residents are still living in the same houses they were living at on the day; elderly parents dying with the same address their children were living at when they died. Most of the families will have had a large photo of their lost child on their living room wall, mini shrines to the lost, still being included in their daily lives.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Indeed, the majority of the whole village were suffering from what is now known as PTSD, but was unknown at the time. Children buried, the general attitude was that they should now all "get on with it" and that the survivors that were children wouldn't really remember much.

Many suffered then and continue to suffer now, from the sights, sounds and smells of that day. Some were lying, buried in rubble and sludge in their classroom, while their classmates died around them. As they were carried away by the rescue services they'll have seen the devastation at the scene, as well as the blood and limbs of their friends, their siblings.

Most, naturally, had nightmares for years - even today. Some blotted it out until a future point some 10-20+ years later when they had a catastrophic breakdown as it came through to them again.

These were the days when people didn't speak about things. And how can you speak to others about it when they were there too and also suffered. You feel that your story is not as bad as others, or that you should just be "getting on with it".

Many never spoke of their experiences to anybody, taking their memories to their graves.

Even fully trained and experienced professional people who were part of the rescue efforts were affected. Many said "my dad went ... he was never the same again", or "my dad went to help, he came home and cried and never spoke of it". At least one suicide is known of just a year later by a trained professional who went to assist and simply couldn't live with the sights he saw. War-experienced reporters and journalists wept and said they've never got over it.

PTSD was something most of the village experienced (and still do) - and because of the reports from other hardened professionals also present, the same stories "never spoke of what was seen" you know it was BAD with a capital "B".

Aberfan: 50 Years On

Now, sadly, many of the parents of these children have joined them in the cemetery. Those remaining are quite elderly and finding it harder to visit.

Many of the parents died early, "of broken hearts" many will say. Doctors reported that existing health issues worsened and some developed new life-threatening conditions. Previously fit, healthy and working people simply never worked again and died an early death. Some of the survivors themselves died young due to taking the wrong path a they struggled to come to terms with their past. Drink, drugs, crime and poor lifestyles were the fate of a handful.

Some of the siblings of the children have also died since. Indeed, with time marching on, even children born into the families after the disaster have already finished their lives.

A child of 10 in the classroom that day would be 60 today. Their parents would be aged 80-100.

50 Years: Private Memorial

There will be a private memorial service to mark the passing of 50 years'. This will be strictly for direct family members, descendants, siblings and those closely related.

This is not an 'event' for the public. Indeed, I'd stay away from Aberfan cemetery for the whole of the month of October and November, leaving the space free for those who wish to be alone with their memories to pay their respects to their dear departed without bumping into 'tourists' who want to "chat to a survivor" and other similarly inappropriate behaviours. Do not sully their personal space and their thoughts with gleeful snapping and tromping around.

It's not too much to ask!

Let them remember, leave their tokens, reflect and stare, without interruption. For many this will be their last "notable date" they visit.

RIP Aberfan

RIP all the children and adults of Aberfan who lost their lives that day. And especially to "my little favourite" Richard Goldsworthy, who loved light, freedom and animals. I hope where he is he's had an endless supply of those for the past 50 years.


Jyoti Kothari from Jaipur on July 12, 2016:

This is a pathetic story. However, Jeff, who survived became Mayor of the city!