At about 9.15am on Friday
21 October 1966, spoil tip No 7 – one of seven slag heaps that loomed like
a mountain range high above the south Wales village of Aberfan – started to move. Then, almost in the blink of an eye, the entire edifice was transformed into a 30-feet-high tsunami of sludge that slid downhill at over 80mph. Seconds later,
a wave consisting of half a million tonnes of liquefied coal waste crashed into Aberfan.
The wave swept across a canal and over an embankment before bearing down on the village primary school.
The children and staff of Pantglas Junior School were about to start their lessons on the last day before half-term. Suddenly they felt a deep shuddering and heard a deafening roar like a jet plane taking off close by. Before anyone had a chance to react, the walls and windows of four of the school’s seven classrooms were violently breached and the school was inundated almost instantly by
a powerful surge of cloying black sludge – over 1.4 million cubic feet of liquefied slurry. By the time the slithering mass came to a halt a few seconds later, dozens of children and adults had been engulfed where they stood or sat.
My new BBC Four documentary brings together freshly recorded memories of the disaster. One such account came from Jeff Edwards, who was eight years old at the time that he was trapped by the sludge. “I was gasping for breath because the air was getting less and less, but at least I had that pocket of air. The panic really set in when I thought: how was I going to get out?” For a few moments after the avalanche an eerie silence enveloped Aberfan as the villagers tried to take in the unimaginable horror of what had just happened. Then they rushed to the school and began frantically clawing at the rapidly re-solidifying slurry.
Miraculously, some children survived. Seven-year-old Karen Thomas and four other children in the school hall were saved by their brave dinner lady, Nansi Williams, who sacrificed her life by diving on top of them to shield them from the slurry. “We were shouting and trying to pull her hair to see if we could get a response from her, because she wasn’t saying anything to us,” Karen recalled. “We didn’t know what was happening. We couldn’t hear anything else. It was just our voices and screams we could hear.”
Ten-year-old Phil Thomas was buried as he walked across Moy Road outside the adjacent senior school, and briefly lost consciousness.
“I woke, pitch black, buried, I couldn’t see
a thing,” he said. “Then I started crying. I was shouting for my mum.”
Phil was still in grave danger: a torrent of water from fractured mains was spreading through the slurry. “He was trapped by his feet and we just couldn’t get him out,” recounted Len Haggett, one of the first firemen on the scene. “The water was rising and coming up to his head. We thought he might drown. There were about seven of us firemen there, and we gave this one final lift and we lifted this wall that had collapsed on him. We were elated that we’d saved his life but to this day I don’t know how we managed to lift that much weight.”
A grim reality
Back in the wrecked classrooms of the junior school, more firemen were inching their way through the mass of muck and rubble. Through a window they spotted a crop of blonde hair. It was Jeff Edwards, who later recalled that “I couldn’t move at all because my desk was against my stomach. On my left-hand side there was a girl’s head next to my face, and I couldn’t get away from the fact she had died. All I could see was a small aperture of light. And the next thing I remember is that the firemen smashed the window and they got in. They got down to my desk but they couldn’t shift it to get me out, so they got their hatchets out and actually broke up the desks. Then they carried me out to safety.”
From 11 o’clock in the morning the rescuers were confronted by a grim reality – that all of the children they were finding in the school were dead. Many were still sitting at their desks, entombed by the slurry. At this point the miners, some of them fathers of children at the school, effectively took over from the firemen. The lead was taken by the local coal board’s Mines Rescue Service, established to rescue miners trapped underground.
One of these rescuers was Roy Hamer, who quickly realised that the action had become a recovery rather than a rescue operation. His testimony is important – and comforting for bereaved parents and families – because it suggests that most of the children died instantly and did not suffer for long.
“I honestly believe that the slurry travelling at that rate… once it came into that school… just swept through it, and the damage was done very quickly. If you can understand the slurry was so small and fine that I think the children were more or less suffocated straight away rather than suffered agonies.”
With the lives of so many children at stake, the rescue and recovery operation quickly became worldwide news. Early in the day, hopes of finding many survivors were high. But the mood changed with each passing hour as more bodies were brought out. Parents waited in agony, among them Marilyn Brown, hoping that her 10-year-old daughter Janette would be found. “We were waiting, thinking: yes, we’re going to have news any minute now of the children, where they are. And we kept asking questions all the time.”
Marilyn remembers how her husband Bernard had been digging all morning, hoping to find their daughter. “He came over to one of the walls of the houses opposite, sitting on the wall, absolutely exhausted, and he said: ‘I don’t know what to do, Marilyn. I don’t know what to do.’ But eventually news came through that quite a few of the children had been buried. This time you didn’t want any more news, because you’re still thinking: yes she’ll be alright. She’ll be fine.”
How many died?
The dead were taken to a makeshift mortuary set up in Bethania Chapel, where many parents had to endure the ordeal of identifying the bodies of their children. Marilyn’s husband and father returned from the temporary mortuary to tell her their news.
“My father started to cry and I said: ‘Is she alright?’ And he said: ‘No. Janette has died.’ He said he had just identified her. I said: ‘I want to go. I want to go and see her.’ ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘you don’t go and see her, she’s fine.’ I said: ‘What does she look like?’ He said: ‘She’s got a tiny mark on her head and she’s sleeping,’ and that was that. Well, I just gave in to it then. My father, he was crying and I think it was because he was crying, I was crying as well. But it sort of comes over you then: yes,
By the end of the day, 60 bodies had been recovered from the disaster area. The final death toll reached 144, of which 116 victims were children – nearly half of the school’s pupils.
Who was to blame?
Nine months later, a tribunal published its report on the disaster. It found that the National Coal Board (NCB) was completely to blame for the disaster, despite the fact that, while giving evidence to the tribunal, NCB chairman Lord Robens had claimed that the avalanche was caused by water from unknown springs underneath the tip. In fact, the springs had been known about for many years – they were even shown on the Ordnance Survey map of the area.
Robens and the NCB also denied that the Aberfan tip complex had slid before, despite clear physical evidence, visible to the naked eye, of tip slides in 1944 and 1963. Donations from a public shocked at the tragedy and keen to help the bereaved families raised over £1.6m for the Aberfan Disaster Fund – at that time, the largest sum ever raised in Britain. But to add insult to injury, this was not given in full to the Aberfan community. Instead, £150,000 from the fund was allocated to clear the surrounding coal tips – an operation that was clearly the responsibility of the NCB.
Coming to terms with the loss of so many children has been very difficult for the people of Aberfan. Many still prefer not to talk about it, especially to outsiders. So it took many months for our film crew to win the trust of survivors, rescuers and bereaved families, and to persuade them to tell their stories on camera. In our film, some tell their stories for the first time.
Fireman Len Haggett, who helped rescue Phil Thomas, had never before spoken about the disaster; he had not even told his wife about anything that happened that day, for fear of upsetting her. Even after he received our letter calling for the memories of retired firemen involved in the Aberfan disaster, passed on by the Merthyr Fire Station, Len pondered for months whether to come forward and tell his story. He was from a generation who dealt with horror and tragedy by not talking about it.
Len had no idea of the identity of the boy whose life he helped save. It seems quite extraordinary today that they should have lived within a mile or so of each other and not known each other. Their moving reunion was captured on camera in a scene that, for me, is one of the most poignant in the film. Also present was Len’s fellow fireman Dave Thomas who assisted in Phil’s rescue.
They had a lot to catch up on – about each other’s lives, and what happened on that terrible day – but the most powerful moment came when a tearful Phil thanked the firemen for saving his life, saying: “Until this day and this meeting I never knew who dug me out.” Len replied: “We’re only sorry we couldn’t get more out.”
Among the most moving and emotional stories from the tragedy of Aberfan are those of the bereaved parents. They are also the most difficult to document and film. A number of the parents have died since the disaster; some are buried in the children’s cemetery on the hill, alongside the sons and daughters they lost in the disaster.
For understandable reasons, surviving mothers and fathers, now mostly in their seventies and eighties, still find it incredibly hard to talk about the day of the disaster. Marilyn Brown retains cherished memories
of her daughter, Janette, who was 10 when
she died. Marilyn keeps photographs of
Janette around her home, and touches them
as she passes.
“It gives me a sense of… she’s still with us, you know? That feeling of: yes – yes, I do remember you, and I will always remember you … She would have been 61 now, and I think: what would she have been like now? What would she have done?”
Steve Humphries is an award-winning film-maker specialising in social history documentaries. He is the co-author with Sue Elliott and Bevan Jones of Surviving Aberfan: The People’s Story (Grosvenor House, 2016).
You can listen to Steve Humphries discussing the Aberfan tragedy on our podcast here.
This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine.