All rights in the selection of extracts on this page are reserved.

Iain McLean, Martin Johnes and the individual sources, 1999.


The last day before half-term

 

On the mountain

… I told him [Vivian Thomas] what I told him before, that the tip was sinking pretty bad and what were they going to do about it. … He told me to go up to the tip, take a burner with me, and get the crane back as far as I could for we were to start another tipping site later on in the week. …

[Q. When you got to the front of the tip, did you see how far it had sunk?] I should say about 18 to 20 ft. … [The crane rails] had broken off and fell down into the hole. … I told the boys that we would get the rails up from there and start and put the crane back. I said before we start we have a cup of tea, and we went back into the shack. We were not there five minutes …

Tip gang chargehand

 

I was standing on the edge of the depression, sir, I was looking down into it, and what I saw I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was starting to come back up. It started to rise slowly at first, sir. I still did not believe it, I thought I was seeing things. Then it rose up after pretty fast, sir, at a tremendous speed. Then it sort of came up out of the depression and turned itself into a wave, that is the only way I can describe it, down towards the mountain … towards Aberfan village, sir. … And as it turned over, I shouted: "Good God, boys, come and look at this lot". … I was looking down in the crevice, sir, down at the drop, and it seemed to me like as if the bottom shot out.

Tip Worker

 

We were not in there more than five minutes when I heard a shout. … We all got out in a matter of seconds. … We all stood there, sir, on the front of the tip. … I saw the tip going in … all I can tell you is it was going down at a hell of a speed in waves. I myself ran down the side of No. 3 tip, all the way down towards No. 2 and No.1 tip on the side. As I was running down I heard another roar behind me and trees cracking and a tram passing me. I stopped – I fell down in fact. All I could see was waves of muck, slush and water. I still kept running

… I kept going down shouting. I could not see, nobody could. … I was stumbling and I got stuck in a bit of the slurry. I could hear a rush behind me and all I could see was soaking wet slurry like waves coming down, more water than muck itself coming down.

Tip gang chargehand

 

… I never expected it would cross the embankment behind the village which I could not see because of the mist which covered the whole of the village. There was nothing I could do. We had no telephone to give an alarm or any warning device. I shouted, but it was no good.

Tip gang chargehand

 

It never dawned on me or came to my thoughts, sir, that it had gone as far as the village.

Tip worker

 

In Aberfan

I heard a noise, a big rumbling noise. … I saw a tree and a telegraph pole coming towards me first, then I saw a big black mass of stuff. … A black wave of muck.

Schoolboy, age 13

 

As I was walking up the hill where it turns left, I saw a big wave of muck coming over the railway embankment. It was coming straight towards me and I ran. … I saw trams, trees, trucks, bricks and boulders in it.

Schoolboy, age 14

 

[It sounded] Like a jet plane. … and two or three seconds later I could hear stones and rubble, so I ran back down the hill. I thought it was the tip. … I said "I don’t think it is a jet, it is the tip", and I shouted at them [two boys] to run, and they ran down behind me. … I remember in Moy Road I could see the front windows crashing in, and the front doors; it was like a pile of dominoes coming down. … I went into that lane for shelter; I didn’t know what to do. … I had only got in about a yard and this top of the garage was down and a sheet of zinc came down and hit me on the head, hit me down. … I could not force it off me. There was a lot of bricks on it; it protected me. … [The noise] was suddenly cut off, just like the wireless being turned off. … It stopped as it hit the last house down No.1 Moy Road and there was a terrible silence.

Aberfan resident

In that silence you couldn’t hear a bird or a child.

Aberfan resident

 

Pantglas Junior School

Mr Davis, our teacher, got the board out and wrote our maths class work and we were all working, and then it began. It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was petrified, afraid to move. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, ‘til I could see the black out of the window. I can’t remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

I was standing in front of the class and the thing I remember the most was what I thought was a couple of slates dropping off the roof; because they had been repairing the roof. And with that I looked up through the fog and I could see this enormous spinning boulder and there was a black line alongside it. And I had time to realise that that spinning boulder wasn’t heading for me. I immediately looked at the class and with that it crashed into the room at the speed of a jet aeroplane and I was hurled from the centre of the room to the corner by the door. … I could feel the room shaking and I could see the room filling up. I’m afraid my life didn’t flash in front of me. What was happening I just didn’t know. And then it stopped. And there was such an eerie silence I remember. From … a tall old classroom … with echoes and sounds, there was nothing, there was just this deadness. And I had a chance to reassess the situation. I was trapped up to my waist in desks and rubble and goodness knows what else. And I looked up to the roof and I could see a young lad in my class right up at the roof and climbing down what was then a tip inside my classroom. And I could hear children all, well they weren’t screaming, they were trapped amongst their desks. And mercifully in my classroom no one was injured badly as far as I can remember, they were trapped but no one was injured badly. And I remember this boy climbing down and he climbed to the door, and I was trapped near the door, and he started kicking the top half of the door in. So I said to him ‘What are you doing?’ And he said ‘I’m going home’. And the reality still hadn’t come home to me I don’t think because I felt like giving him a row for breaking the glass. So he kicked the top half of the door and then he went out. And I thought well I better try and get out of here.

Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

 

I was about to start marking the register when there was a terrible noise like a jet plane and I was afraid it was going to fall on the school. So I said to my children ‘Get under your desks quickly and stay there’. And there was one little boy in front of me … and he kept poking his head out, ‘Why Miss? Why have I got to do that?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m telling you to, get under your desk’, and I had to go and put his head under and stand by him. As it happened nothing happened in our classroom, just this dreadful noise. It seemed like ages but it must have been only a few minutes and there was silence.

Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

 

My abiding memory of that day is blackness and dark. I was buried by this horrible slurry and I am afraid of the dark to this day.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

I went to the door of the classroom and tried the door of the class room, the children were still under their desks, the door opened, some rubble fell but when I looked out all I could see was black and large lumps of concrete which were parts of the cloak room. But when I looked I could see there was enough room for us to crawl through sort of a tunnel. So I went back to the children and I said we had a fire drill and I wanted them to walk out of class quietly. That I’d go to the school door and open it and then I’d come back and they were to go out one at a time. They weren’t to talk, they were to go out and stand in the yard and wait for fire drill. And every one of the children did as I asked them. They went out quietly and stood in the yard. I came out then at the end and Mair had come down from the room and we didn’t know what had happened. We went round the corner and when we looked around the corner well it just looked as if the end of the school had just vanished, there was a just a black tip.

Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

 

… when I got outside I looked at what was to become a famous picture of where the school, where three classrooms had being … the school was smashed over with this rubble. And I remember standing looking at that and thinking, well, the reality of it, I just couldn’t believe it. And from where there were, at least to my calculations, a hundred children there wasn’t a sound.

Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

 

I remember being thrown across the classroom when the stuff hit us, then I must have blacked out. I woke to the sound of rescuers breaking a window, then I saw [my friend]. I will never forget the sight. There was blood coming out of his nose and I knew he was dead. If I close my eyes I can still see his face as plain as that moment.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

I was there for about an hour and a half until the fire brigade found me. I heard cries and screams, but I couldn’t move. The desk was jammed into my stomach and my leg was under the radiator. The little girl next to me was dead and her head was on my shoulder.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

The rescue

We are so used to having coal tipped near the school and this noise sounded just like coal being tipped only much more noise than usual; it was a heavy sound. … I was going towards the school, and I suddenly realised the sound was coming nearer all the time, and the feeling it was the tip came to my mind straight away; so I ran back to the house; my little girl was in bed, so I got her and the wife outside and I went back to the school.

… The north side of the school was completely down, and the tip had come right down the road, Moy Road. I went straight into the boiler house of the junior school and raked out the fire. … I came out of the boiler house and saw in the classroom next to the boiler house some children there and they were unable to get out, so I tried to smash the window to get the children out, but there was not enough space to get them out that way. The teacher managed to open the door somehow. … I went in through the door and the children came out past me, out to the yard. Then I went round to the front of the school where Mrs. Williams’ class was. I saw she was in there and she could not breathe – she shouted she could not breathe. So I went in through the window, the window was that height from the yard, you know. I climbed in through the window. There was some children trapped in the masonry; I got those children out, passed them out through the window. After that I went outside again and saw a little girl on top of the tank above Miss Jennings’ classroom. She was right up and wanted to come down. How she got there I do not know. But I got up on the tank and got her down. Then I saw Mrs. Williams, a teacher, and went to the assembly hall and started digging them out. After that I do not know, I cannot remember anything; all I know is my two boys were buried in the rubble.

School caretaker

 

Then the next thing I remember was seeing a mass of men coming up from the colliery still with their lamp lights on. That was really moving because they were black, they’d just come off the shift and they’d been sent straight up. And they had their lights on. And after that they just took over from us.

Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

 

I went down to work, changed, went down the pit and I hadn’t been down the pit ten minutes when they sent for everybody to come up, that the tip had slide. Well we came up, I couldn’t fathom it out; I’d never seen anything like it. The front of the school was there but there was no back. We went there and we dug and dug all day.

Miner and bereaved parent

 

We had to break the front windows and then climb in. … We had no tools – we used our bare hands and anything we could find. But there was nothing anyone could do, between the slurry and the water coming down. That was the worst, not being able to do anything. There’s nothing as bad as that.

Bereaved parent

The women were already there, like stone they were, clawing at the filth – it was like a black river – some had no skin left on their hands. Miners are a tough breed, we don’t show our feelings, but some of the lads broke down.

Miner

 

I have been asked to inform that there has been a landslide at Pantglas. The tip has come down on the school.

Emergency call received by Merthyr Tydfil police, 9.25 a.m., 21 October 1966

 

We didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea of the scale of the thing. It was a great shock. There was absolute chaos and somehow I had to organise that chaos.

Assistant Chief Constable

 

I left by car for the scene of the incident. … and I arrived at Moy Road … at about 10 o’clock. That was near the infants’ school. With the co-operation of the chief inspector I set up an incident post at a police car on the colliery side of the incident to maintain communications with police headquarters by radio telephone. … I then made a reconnaissance of the whole area above the school, and I managed to get round to the streets to the other side, the north side of the incident at the Mackintosh hotel. This reconnaissance revealed that not only was the Pantglas junior school buried under approximately 20 to 30 ft. of debris, but a large number of houses in Moy Road and Pantglas had been demolished and submerged under a pile of debris and liquid mud.

… at 10.30 a large quantity of water was still pouring into the disaster area, and I was informed that it was coming from the mountain springs and two large water mains which had been fractured when the disused canal and disused railway embankment had broken.

Chief Constable of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil

 

They [The vehicle and rescue workers] had to retire a little to avoid being swamped by the new rush of water and slurry. … It certainly hindered the rescuers from the end that I was working and had that water not come quite a number of properties would have been saved.

Chief Inspector in Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Police

 

As I was in the shop there was dirty black water coming down the hill, and as I was waiting my turn to be served I shouted out that we were going to be flooded. As I dashed back to the house with my little baby Alan, who was just one, in my arms, I fell over the milk bottles.

With that my friend Glenys from a few doors away arrived with her daughter Sian who was dirty. She said Sian had come home from class all covered in dirt, and she had thrust her into my arms before running back up to the school. I asked Sian what had happened and she said that the school had fallen down.

I didn’t know what to do, so I went round to Glenys’ house where the door was wide open and a stream of dirty water was just rushing through.

I ran up to the top then and when I saw the school had fallen down, my legs just turned to jelly. I couldn’t walk. I just stood there dazed as all the time water flooded my home. Glenys came past and said she hadn’t seen [my daughter].

Aberfan resident

 

As I was being carried out I realised I had lost my jumper. It was a mustard-coloured one that my mother had knitted. There were five children in our family and you couldn’t afford to lose a jumper, so I tried to go back and look for it because I thought I would get into trouble. I was taken straight to hospital and my parents did not come to see me until evening. They must have spent the whole day not knowing where I was, not knowing if I was alive or dead. But we never talked about it.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

I could hear men’s voices but I didn’t know what they were doing or where they were. I heard someone crying and then this voice was asking me if I could see daylight and I could put my finger through it and then I was dug out.

I was passed through a chain of men, out through a window and into the yard and handed to the policeman, who carried me to the side of a wall where he placed me on the ground. … I looked back at the school and I just couldn’t believe what had happened. It was completely flat.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

At that time I’d bought felt pens and they were rather a new thing. They cost 2 and 6 at the time. And I had these three felt pens, a red one, a blue one and a mauve one. And I was more interested in getting these felt pens out. And the fire officer said to me, ‘Forget those bloody felt pens and lets get you out.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

Men, women and children were tearing away the debris in an effort to reach the trapped children. As the men shovelled debris from spade to spade, children’s books appeared. An odd cap was seen. A broken doll.

Mothers gathered around the school steps, some weeping, some silent, Some shaking their heads in disbelief. …

The slurry had piled up 25 feet against the school, smashing its way through the building, filling the classrooms.

Teams of 50 men and boys worked in long rows from the school building, handing buckets of slurry up the mountainside from the classrooms.

On each side of the school mechanical shovels and bulldozers gouged the debris out. An endless line of lorries carried it away. … At regular intervals everything would come to a halt – the roar of heavy machinery, the shouts, the scraping of shovels. Not a murmur would be heard among the thousand workers. Time stood still. And rescuers listened tensely for the slightest sound from the wreckage – for a cry, a moan, a movement – anything which would give hope to the mothers and fathers.

First Journalist on the scene

 

Nobody told me what had happened at the time. I asked somebody next to me, it must have been a couple of hours later, he said "What is this stuff?"; I did not know myself what it was, and I was under the impression it was an explosion of gas. I did not think the tip had slipped; I did not realise anything about the tip. It must have been a good two hours when somebody said "it’s the tip that has slipped." I did not know; I was just knocked for six; I did not realise that it was that.

Bereaved parent

 

It’s like a blitz – as though a bomb had been dropped on the whole school.

We can only work in small groups, and gas is leaking. Progress is slow, as we have to prop up the beams and wall as we go in.

The chances of survival are negligible, but I’m hope I’m wrong.

Rescue worker

 

You only have to mention what you want it and it comes. We’ve had no trouble at all to get anything.

Civil Defence worker

 

The really incredible thing was that you couldn’t walk five yards without a member of the WVRS or the Salvation Army or the Red Cross putting a cup of soup, a cup of coffee or a cup of chocolate into your hand.

Detective Constable

 

‘We cut up cotton sheets for bandages, and gave blankets and pillows for the children as they were brought out on stretchers’

‘Rescuers came in for everything, and we gave all we could. All we thought of was that children’s lives were at stake.’

‘Everything lost its value in comparison with those children’.

Aberfan Resident

 

No one was brought out alive after 11 o’clock.

Chief Constable of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil

 

… the roads leading to the incident both from Merthyr Vale and from Troedyrhiw were blocked with vehicles with rescue workers and helpers, both official and voluntary, and similarly the A.470 road between Pentrebach and the Travellers Rest was becoming congested, and in a number of places it had become completely blocked. … The mortuary was set up in the early stages at Bethania Chapel, and I appointed an officer of the regional crime squad to take over the identification and handling of the bodies, and by 11.30 at night on the first day 67 bodies had been brought in and identification was then in progress.

Chief Constable of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil

 

I reached the tragic village of Aberfan on Saturday morning. The initial panic and hysteria had died and now there was a well-ordered rescue operation under-way. But it was still a grim sight. There was a greyness everywhere. Faces from the tiredness and anguish, houses and roads from the oozing slurry of the tips.

The grey-black mass seemed to have penetrated everywhere and all around were evacuated houses.

Merthyr Express

 

There was an estimated 2,000 volunteers now [Saturday] at the scene. Many of them had been working for 24 hours.

First journalist on the scene

 

Heavy rain started at 2.30 p.m. Saturday causing immense anxiety and fear that the huge tip would slide again and engulf the rescuers. … By this time about 2,500 workers were on the scene. Extra police were called in because in-experienced rescuers would not leave the scene.

Merthyr Express

 

… no less than 144 men, women and children lost their lives. 116 of the victims were children, most of them between the ages of 7 and 10 …

Report of the Tribunal appointed to inquire into the Disaster at Aberfan

 

Bereavement

Up until then [Friday, 7 p.m.] I had hoped that the chapel was a hospital, but as I went into Bethania people were coming out who had been told their children had gone. Until I went in I still had hope that they were just lost. When I went all the pews were covered with little blankets and under them lay the little children. They picked up the blankets and showed me every girl until I came to [her] and said she was mine. There wasn’t a mark on her except a little scratch over her mouth, even her clothes were clean.

What I missed most was the noise and fun around the house. [My daughter] was boisterous and full of fun. Our house was as quiet as a mouse after she’d gone.

Bereaved mother

 

As soon as the word swept around Aberfan that the bodies were being taken to Bethania chapel, parents and relatives arrived at the front door. They waited in a long patient line to be permitted in, to try and identify the daughter, son, wife, husband, mother or father. Because of the cramped conditions in which we were operating we could only deal with two sets of relatives at a time.

When we established the age and sex of the person they were seeking they were shown all the bodies that matched. The task was not made easier by the fact that most of the boys wore grey short trousers and the girls a standard dress and cardigan.

Policeman working at the mortuary

 

In the night we had to go to see if we could identify her in this chapel. I’ve never forgotten that. It comes back to me everyday. There’s some part of the day that that picture comes back to me and I can never forget that. … All these little bodies wrapped in blankets.

Bereaved father

 

So they went back, my daughter Angela, and my husband and her husband as he is now, to look and search for the child. Someone had said that the child was taken down to Church Village. So they went down to the hospitals there but no they couldn’t see the child. I knew that when Emlyn came in the early hours of the morning that [she] was not going to be found. His face was grey and Angela was terrible, we knew then that the little one was gone.

Bereaved mother

 

The streets were silent but for the sound of shuffling feet. Some mourners wept while others pent up their emotions until they reached the cemetery.

As the funeral singing began, hymn singing drifted down to the village below where everyone shared in the sorrow. All shops were closed; the doors of the public houses were bolted and normal life ceased.

At the graveside above, three thousand people gathered to pay their last respects.

The burial took place in the shadow of the now depleted tip.

Merthyr Express

 

… all those little coffins in the grave. It was terrible, terrible. There was hundreds of people up there. Some screaming, some crying …

Bereaved father

 

Anger and determination

I was helping to dig the children out when I heard a photographer tell a kiddie to cry for her dead friends, so that he could get a good picture – that taught me silence.

Rescue worker

During that period the only thing I didn’t like was the press. If you told them something, when the paper came out your words were all the wrong way round.

Bereaved father

 

The brave front of the people of Aberfan cracked on Monday at an inquest on 30 of the children.

There were shouts of "murderers" as the Coroner of Merthyr, Mr. Ben Hamilton, began reading out the names of the dead children.

As one name was read out and the cause of death given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father of the child said "No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board".

One of the only two women among the 60 people at the inquest at Sion Primitive English Methodist Chapel at Aberfan, shouted out through her tears, "They have killed our children."

Then a number of people called out and got to their feet. The coroner tried to restore order and said: "I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying."

The father repeated: "I want it recorded – ‘Buried alive by the National Coal Board.’ That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate."

Merthyr Express

 

It was impossible to know that there was a spring in the heart of this tip which was turning the centre of the mountain into sludge.

Rt. Hon. Lord Robens of Woldingham, Chairman of the National Coal Board, to a TV reporter

A man who lost his niece at Aberfan broke through a police cordon to talk to Lord Justice Edmund Davies – the man who head the inquiry into the disaster – as he toured the stricken village on Tuesday.

The man, 61-year old Mr. Philip Brown, a disabled miner, told the judge: "Don’t let strangers pull the wool over your eyes."

The judge spoke to Mr. Brown for a couple of minutes and then moved away to continue his tour.

Afterwards Mr. Brown said "I asked him if I could speak to him for five minutes. He told me, ‘Most certainly.’ He is a real gentleman.

"I said, ‘Don’t let strangers take up the mountain and pull the wool over your eyes. If you must go up, go up with a local man who knows the real facts.’ "

… "I told him the spring at the head of the mountain had always been there.

"It was not a hidden spring. The National Coal Board must have known about it because everyone in the village did."

Merthyr Express

 

I was tormented by the fact that the people I was seeking justice from were my people – a Labour Government, a Labour council, a Labour-nationalised Coal Board.

Bereaved husband and parent

 

The Aberfan disaster was very much a disaster of the Valleys; it could have happened in any part of them. It was the crowning disaster of a dangerous industry, and its victims were the innocent.

Aberfan community worker

 

Why there is bitterness?

"During my childhood I played on that monstrous mountain of slag, and in my youth I rummaged coal from it. Everyone knew that one day – some day – this hideous scar on the landscape, this indiscriminate dumping of colliery refuse, would bring disaster. But little did we think that when it did happen, it would leave such devastation and heart-breaking sorrow in its wake."

These words are written by a native of Aberfan, an ex-pupil of Pantglas school. They are contained in a letter to the editor expressing heartfelt sympathy to all those people who are suffering in this hour of indescribable tragedy.

There is today sadness in the hearts of everyone who lives in a mining valley. But there is bitterness too.

The coal mining communities of South Wales have lived so long with death as a companion that they reconcile themselves to accepting the peril that hangs over them.

Everyone knows that coal tips move. Everyone fears that one day the tip above their village will come rumbling down into the valley, but it is a possibility that they accept.

Without the tip above Aberfan the Merthyr Vale Colliery could have closed down. Without the colliery the village would itself have died.

This is the terrible fear that ate into the minds of the people of Aberfan.

Now the worst has happened. Tragedy of the most devastating kind has struck. A village has lost its children. Is not the bitterness, therefore, understandable?

Merthyr Express Editorial

 

My first impression of Aberfan was terrible. I couldn’t imagine, I never imagined that it was like that. The village was dirty, my house was dirty, everything was dirty. The tip had left mud and slurry everywhere. I was fortunate in one way because I had no conception what this tip had done to us at Aberfan. It wasn’t until a long time after till I came to terms with this. Then instead of being a passive person as I was before I became a fighter for Aberfan. I felt that we had a duty to the children who were left and those who were yet to be born. And it was a duty that we must build a better Aberfan for the children that were coming.

Bereaved parent on returning to Aberfan after the disaster

 

The villagers had done admirably in rehabilitating themselves with very little help. A Government gesture was needed to restore confidence and only complete removal of the tips would do this. Many people in the village were on sedatives but they did not take them when it was raining because they were afraid to go to sleep. Children did not close their bedroom doors in case they should be trapped.

Official note of Aberfan social worker’s comments at meeting with Welsh Office

 

They took the money out of the disaster fund to pay for the removal of the tips, which was to me shocking. Absolutely unbelievable. And that’s always been in me. I think they [the NCB] owe us. They owe the people of Aberfan a debt. Call it a debt of conscience if you like. I don’t think we should beg for this And we need the money. There’s the Memorial Garden to be maintained. And the cemetery. For many, many years to come. Where is it going to come from in later years when we’re gone ..?

Bereaved parent, speaking in 1996

 

Recovery

I tried to rescue people but I realised it could be dangerous just digging, not knowing what you were doing and I was getting in the way of people so I immediately switched over to pastoral work … The end of chapter 8 of Romans is a great summary of faith - What can separate us from the love of God - It’s a passage I always use when there’s a personal tragedy or disaster and that’s a message we always try to emphasise - I am certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death nor life, neither angels or other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future.

Bereaved Baptist minister, speaking in 1996

 

My work afterwards was more like that of a pastor. People had to face not only grief but bitterness, anger and even guilt. The first real thing that happened were the terrible nightmares people suffered, reliving the event time and time again. That went on for months. There was a terrible worry and pressure on people while the tip was still there, and every time there was a row over what was to be done about the tip my surgery would be full the next day. The stress and anxiety triggered off by what to do would affect people’s health.

It was predicted at the time that a lot of people might suffer from heart attacks brought on by the stress and grief, but that didn’t happen. Other experts predicted

that there would be a number of suicides, but that didn’t happen either. These people hadn’t allowed for the resilience of the families involved. It was psychological problems that hit worst.

One thing that did happen within a short time afterwards was that the birth rate went up. Also many people were drinking a lot more and for some time after I had to deal with people who had serious drink problems, and for people who already had health problems, those problems increased.

From the time of the disaster for about the following six years I dealt with people who suffered break downs. There was no set pattern or any time when it could be expected to happen. It happened at different times for different people.

After the disaster I warned the community would have to come to accept its guilt. This guilt came out in many ways. There were the so-called guilty men who were blamed for what happened; they suffered themselves and were the victims of a hate campaign. But it wasn’t only them. Women who had sent their children who hadn’t want to go to school that day suffered terrible feelings of guilt. … Grief and guilt came in many different ways. There was a strange bitterness between families who lost children and those who hadn’t; people just could not help it.

Aberfan doctor

 

I kept asking myself why I hadn’t died and I blamed myself for allowing my brother and sister to die.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

I’ve got to say this again, if the papers and the press and the television were to leave us alone in the very beginning I think we could have settled down a lot quicker than what we did.

Bereaved father

 

… we were a community that were not used to being exposed on television or in papers. We are a community that wears our hearts on our sleeves. We’re quite open and we were only doing in the time after the disaster, as far as I’m concerned, what we’ve always done for years, thrashing out and the press exploded it. The other thing I always felt was that many of the facts that they reported were, and if they kept the facts, were fairly accurate. But it did remind of a scientist who has got a theory and then forces the facts to prove it. But what I wanted them to do was to take the facts and then decide what it told them. And the result was that they were coming in, and I remember more than one interviewing me wanting me to give certain answers,

Bereaved father

 

We weren’t prepared for it. We weren’t geared up for what was happening. Like the people from the press. They came in. We hadn’t seen any of this, ever, we din’t know, it’s a different world to us. And they came from all over the place … They were round with their notebooks and their pads and asking all these questions, ‘How are you getting over it?’ You can’t ask me that now, never mind 30 years ago.

Bereaved parent, speaking in 1996

 

Fragments of the school itself still lie embedded in the rubbish – chunks of green-painted classroom wall…. Even more poignant relics lie in a corner of the buried playground piled haphazardly against a wall – some miniature desks and chairs, evocative as a dead child’s clothes, infant-sized, still showing the shape of their bodies. Among the rubble there also lie crumpled song-books, sodden and smeared with slime, the words of some bed-time song still visible on the pages surrounded by drawings of sleeping elves.

Across the road from the school, and facing up the mountain, stands a row of abandoned houses. This must once have been a trim little working-class terrace, staidly Victorian but specially Welsh, with lace-curtained windows, potted plants in the hall, and a piano in every parlour – until the wave of slag broke against it, smashed the doors and windows, and squeezed through the rooms like toothpaste.

Something has been done to clear them, but not very much. They stand like broken and blackened teeth. Doors sag, windows gape, revealing the devastation within – a crushed piano, some half-smothered furniture. You can step in from the street and walk round the forsaken rooms which still emit an aura of suffocation and panic – floors scattered with letters, coat-hangers on the stairs, a jar of pickles on the kitchen table. The sense of catastrophe and desertion, resembling the choked ruins of Pompeii, hangs in the air like volcanic dust.

....Prettily dressed and beribboned, riding expensive pedal-cars and bicycles, they [surviving children] are an elite, the aristocrats of survival, their lives nervously guarded and also coveted by those who mourn. By luck, chance, and by no choice of their own, they are part of the unhealed scar-tissue of Aberfan.

Laurie Lee, writer, on Aberfan one year on

 

Of course, we could have lost the boy too. He was on his way up Moy Road when he saw the houses falling towards him. He ran off home; and I couldn’t get a word out of him for months. He had to go to the psychiatrist…. Just wouldn’t talk about it, and wouldn’t mention his sister either. And the two of ‘em worshipped each other. They was always together; slept in the same room, holding hands…. He used to hide when we went to the grave….

Then one night – about four months later it was – we was round at our brother’s place. The boy went outside to the lavatory and I heard him call Dad! Ay, what is it, boy? I said. Come out here! he said. Sure, I said, what’s the matter? It was a beautiful frosty night. He said, Look at that star up there – that’s our Sandie, Dad. Sure, I said, that’s our little Sandie.

The boy’s all right now, and I’m going to see he’s all right…. And I’ll make damn sure he never goes down the pit. He’s not going to grow up daft like me.

Bereaved father talking to Laurie Lee in the pub, 1967

 

We were a generation that lost out. We lost out on our education and on our futures. I can’t think of any of us who ever did really well and most of just stayed and grew up in the village. We haven’t gone far at all.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

In Mount Pleasant school, which was a similar school, I remember vividly the first day going in, I took the remains of the upper part of the school, going into the classroom and sitting down there and outside was a railway line coming from the colliery and a diesel rumbled past, very very slowly, and I can see the looks on the children’s faces and mine. But it turned out alright but the actual shock of getting back to school was enormous and eventually everything went off alright and the children returned to normality.

Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

 

There was none of the discipline we used to have … We didn’t go out to play for a long time because those who’d lost their own children couldn’t bear to see us. We all knew what they were feeling and we felt guilty about being alive.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

As children we never got any sympathy. We were always told we were lucky to be alive. I suppose everybody in the village was so badly affected that nobody had the time to give us any sympathy. At school, though, the teachers treated us differently. It was as if they could not bring themselves to be strict with us. We lost a lot of schooling after the disaster anyway, and most of us never really made it up.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

What happened in Aberfan that day was the dark little secret when we were young and it still is. We knew we must not speak out. We have been quiet for the sake of the other people, those who lost children and those who did not want to hear about what happened, especially from the mouths of their own children. … What’s more, the survivors have never spoken to each other about it. Most of us live in the same small village and have grown up together, yet we all kept everything locked away inside ourselves. … I think that, in some ways, it is harder to deal with being a man [check exact wording of this], especially around here. Here I am, a grown man, tough ex-miner and all that, yet since that day I don’t like the dark. Down the pit was all right as long as I was in company. I made sure I was never alone down there. … When we were young there was almost nobody left. We wandered streets like lost souls.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

In those days talking of your emotions was an embarrassment. As a child you felt ashamed to tell someone what you were feeling, even if you were crying. You didn’t want them to know you were crying. I only cried when I’d gone to bed in the evenings. If my mother heard me she would come in to see me, But I couldn’t talk to her about how I felt – and in the morning I would feel embarrassed. In my family we never discussed what had happened. Nothing was said. Just tears and very quiet. It’s the same round here today – people don’t want you to see they’re upset. I’ve never seen my dad to cry, never. When I went to bed I would speak to God. He was the only one I could speak to at the time. You don’t get an answer back but you could feel there’s somebody there. And that’s a comfort. … My Dad was very bitter for years. It was his only son, you see. My mother still won’t talk about that time. She doesn’t want to know. She’s blanked it out. It was the only way she could cope. We always went to church and she turned atheist for a while, which was bad because it meant she had no comfort anywhere. But she started to believe again and I think it has given her back her strength.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

We couldn’t talk about the loss for some time. Our boy was only seven. It threw our family life completely off-balance. [My wife] was breaking down all the time. What can you say? You feel so helpless. You sit there and you can’t do a thing.

Bereaved father

 

It gives you a respect for living. You’re thankful just to be here and all my friends seem to be very placid, I never argue with people. We seem to be different, for I never discuss the disaster with friends – I think you do tend to wipe it out.

Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

 

Today, when a disaster happens, you bring in people who are trained counsellors to help the victims’ families cope. But the counselling in Aberfan then was done by the community itself. That true Welshness, the sense of belonging and togetherness, came to the fore then.

Detective Constable

 

By every statistic, patients seen, prescriptions written, deaths, I can prove that this is a village of excessive sickness. And the cause is obvious. … Psychiatrists came and wrote "Aberfan needs no help". Now they come to study what grief did to us. Nowhere else has grief been so concentrated. Lockerbie, Zeebrugge, King’s Cross – everywhere they used the lessons this place taught them.

Aberfan Doctor

 

For many years after the disaster if I was sitting in an enclosed room and a jet aeroplane would approach I would absolutely quake and shiver until it had gone and actually feel the nerves running through my body. I think it also affected my driving as well. I was very aware of the environment and dangers in the environment. But gradually over the years it sort of disappeared and now I’m all right I can rationalise a jet aeroplane.

Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

 

As far as we’re concerned now, we’ve still got two boys. We’re only separated for a time. One day we’re going to meet. The parting and the loneliness and being without him is terrible, but it’s not for ever.

Bereaved Baptist minister, speaking in 1996

 


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All rights in the selection of extracts on this page are reserved.

Iain McLean, Martin Johnes and the individual sources, 1999.