The mistake that cost Aberfan its childrenPublished by MAC on 2016-10-21
The tailings disaster which buried half a generation
On 21 October 1966, 116 young children and 28 adults were swept to their deaths under an avalanche of coal slurry which descended on the south Wales village of Aberfan. A judicial tribunal found the British National Coal Board guilty of ignoring compelling evidence that the waste dump was insecure and prone to collapse. But no official was charged with any offence.
The majority of coal tailings tips in south Wales have been removed and the valleys, like Aberfan’s, are green again. But the outline of where they once stood above the village can be clearly seen. Despite fervent efforts to cultivate it, the grass which grows over the site of the tips is a different colour, a coarse, sickly yellow.
Aberfan: The mistake that cost a village its children
20 October, 2016
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
The phrase is one of the most enduring and quoted of modern literature, an almost proverbial reference to the archaic and bygone.
It is the opening line of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, an eerie story set 50 years on from a tumultuous experience of an adolescent boy; an experience so devastating it propelled him prematurely into adulthood and ruined the rest of his life.
The story of what happened in the south Wales mining village of Aberfan is a devastating one which dealt a similar fate to the children who survived it.
It too is a story for which Hartley’s opening line could not be more pertinent.
It is exactly 50 years since tragedy swooped down on Aberfan killing 116 children and 28 adults.
Revisiting the "obscenity" of 21 October 1966, and its aftermath is a stark reminder of the incongruities of the past.
Health and safety, counselling, accountability, litigation, compensation – at times met with derision – are the tenets of our modern day.
Aberfan is an upsetting reminder of perhaps why and how much our society changed so much in little over a generation.
Friday, 21 October 1966 - 09:00
“Our valley was going black, and the slag heap had grown so much it was half-way along to our house. Young I was and small I was, but young or small I knew it was wrong, and I said so to my father.”
- How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
In the village of Aberfan in the heart of the south Wales coalfield it was raining; as hard and unrelentingly as it had been for days, running into weeks.
As the children left the coal-fire warmth of home they emerged into streets shrouded with a dense, cold fog.
Mothers waved goodbye from the doorstep, never imagining in their worst nightmares that it would be for the last time.
The 240 pupils of the Victorian red brick Pantglas Junior School wound their way through the gullies, the back lanes of the miners’ terrace houses, crunching over layers of sodden clinker swept from the hearth and tipped there on a daily basis.
As the children congregated for morning assembly, they were excited.
At midday the half-term holiday would begin.
Their daily rendition of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ – a hymn written a few miles away in the bucolic tranquillity of the Usk Valley – was postponed that day.
They would sing it before they went home when the head teacher planned to wish her pupils a safe and enjoyable holiday.
The children filed into classrooms.
And so the world turned in Aberfan much as it had done for the past 100 years, when the community burgeoned around the Merthyr Vale colliery which began in 1869.
Merthyr Vale was one of the largest of more than 600 coal mines which plundered the once picturesque green Valleys for ‘black gold’.
The back-breaking toil of miners stoked the industrial revolution and more recently powered Britain through World War Two.
By 1966, however, the coal industry had been in decline for 30 years in favour of oil and several pits had shut. In Aberfan though, the mine’s head-frame sheave wheel still turned, driving the life-blood of the community.
The workforce had fallen from its peak of 2,000-plus to about 800; still a sizeable proportion of breadwinners for the 8,000-or-so population of the three villages of Aberfan, Merthyr Vale and Mount Pleasant which made up the collective community known as Ynysowen, five miles from the former iron capital of the world, Merthyr Tydfil.
Pit jobs kept Aberfan thriving – butchers, grocers, clothiers, banks, a co-operative department store, cinema, library, recreational hall and pubs and working men’s clubs galore.
On Sundays though it was the turn of the village’s nine chapels, churches and gospel halls to do a roaring trade; Wales’ fervent religious tradition held strong.
But Christianity had competition.
The National Coal Board (NCB) wielded a god-like power.
Since taking control of UK mining, nationalised in 1947, the NCB was revered as the salvation for a dwindling coal industry.
It had a firm grip on central government and the Labour-entrenched local governments of south Wales via its employees and union officials who served as councillors.
In the post-war corporatist climate of the 1960s, it was held in what now seems uncomfortable reverence.
The working man knew his place; authority knew best.
But as the events of that day were to demonstrate, that was far from the truth.
Wales’ mining communities were no stranger to tragedy.
Death and danger was part of the fabric of life and had bred a peculiar fatalism.
About 6,000 had been killed in pit accidents in Wales since the late 1800s – explosions at Senghenydd in 1913 which killed 439, Gresford 1934 where 266 perished and at Six Bells in 1960 where 45 lost their lives - yet such incidents accounted for only 17% of the total mine-related deaths.
The cost of coal exacted a heavy price on human life. That was a given.
But then there had never been anything to compare with Aberfan.
Numerous complaints had been made to the NCB about the dangers of one of the seven gigantic slag heaps or spoil tips that loomed three quarters of a mile high over the village – including a petition from Pantglas school in 1963.
Every mining community had its tips. The entire south Wales Valleys landscape was jagged with them.
Big lump coal was required for domestic heating so the waste and tailings - fine particles left after the washing process - was loaded onto rail trams and dumped at the top of the valley, land of no economic value.
The tips were notorious for sliding but there was particular concern about Aberfan’s ‘tip number seven’ which had begun in 1958 and had risen to a 111ft (34m) heap of some 300,000 cubic yards (229,300 cubic metres) of waste.
It lay on highly-porous sandstone riven with streams and underwater springs.
It had slipped three years previously when an ominous crater appeared at the top.
A bulge had formed at the foot of the tip as mountain spring water, unable to drain away, liquefied the spoil into thick, black quicksand.
The NCB brushed complaints aside.
The threat was implicit - make a fuss and the mine would close.
While many spoke out about the dangers, others who had misgivings held their tongue, recalling grim memories of long years of unemployment in the valleys.
At 07:30 that Friday the tip was reported to have sunk 20ft.
If only fate had played its hand 20 minutes earlier, the school would have been empty.
One tipping gang worker told a subsequent inquiry how the slide began.
“It was starting to come back up,” he said. “It started to rise slowly at first, sir… I thought I was seeing things. Then it rose up pretty fast, sir, at a tremendous speed.
"Then it sort of came up out of the depression and turned itself into a wave… down towards the mountain… towards Aberfan village… into the mist.”
Seconds later the bottom of the tip shot out.
Down in Pantglas Junior School the lights began to flicker and sway; an ominous roar like “a jet plane screaming low over the school in the fog”.
The glistening black avalanche consumed rocks, trees, farm cottages then ruptured the Brecon Beacons to Cardiff water main, engorging it further and increasing the velocity of its murderous descent towards Pantglas.
Seconds after it hit, Cyril Vaughan, a teacher at the neighbouring senior school, said “everything was so quiet”.
“As if nature had realised that a tremendous mistake had been made and nature was speechless.”
“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.”
- Novelist Laurie Lee from 'The village that lost its children', part of an essay collection entitled "I Can't Stay Long"
Jeff Edwards was the last child to be lifted out of Pantglas alive. After graduating from the University of London, he left a City accountancy career to return home and set up community projects to tackle social problems among young people after the mine closed in 1989. Awarded an MBE in 2003 he went on to serve as an independent Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil and council leader.
Jeff Edwards decided he would never have children. The trauma of Aberfan, he believes, has somehow corrupted his DNA.
“Your personality has changed to such a degree your traits, your make-up, your being has been so fundamentally altered you wouldn’t want to perpetuate it,” he says.
“One minute we were young innocent children of eight years of age who were looking forward to the holidays and then at twenty past nine we were totally different people and would never be the same again.”
That morning Jeff called for his best friend Robert, a local doctor’s son. Jeff was among just four of his 34 classmates who survived. Robert was killed.
“I’d gone over to the library books which were on the windowsill at the back of the class which faced the tip and picked up Herge’s Adventures of Tintin,” he recalls.
“I came back to my desk and our teacher, Mr Davies, started a maths lesson.
Jeff recalls a thunderous noise which grew louder and louder.
“The next thing I remember was waking up, my right foot was stuck in the radiator and there was water pouring out of it," he says.
"My desk was pinned against my stomach and a girl's head was on my left shoulder. She was dead.
"Because all the debris was around me I couldn't get away from her. The image of her face comes back to me continuously.
“It was black all around me but there was an aperture of light about 10ft above me. I remember seeing particles of dust spinning and glistening where the light caught them.
"I could hear crying and screaming. As time went on they got quieter and quieter as children died, they were buried and running out of air.”
The 90 minutes-or-so Jeff waited, gasping for breath, death on his young shoulder, before being rescued is hard to imagine.
Above him the muck began to harden and set like cement while torrents of dirty black flood water coursed into the village from the ruptured water main on the hillside above.
Yvonne Price, then 21, was one of the first police officers on the scene. She recalls being rigid with shock.
As her patrol car turned into the village, the driver screamed: "I can't get through... The water's rising... the water's rising.
"A huge bank of water was coming directly towards us," she says. "It was like a tsunami, it was terrifying."
The crisis whistle sounded in the colliery and miners, their headlamps still lit, ran to the school where women were clawing at the slurry - “some had no skin on their hands” - trying in vain to reach children who could be heard crying.
The late Cliff Minett, a former miner who lost two children that day, jumped down into the school hall.
“I looked to my left, there was a woman on her knees screaming,” he said. “It was a teacher... I said ‘have the children gone home?’, she said ‘no, they’re all in there’.”
What little hope there was ran out after Jeff was rescued.
“I heard the men breaking a window and someone said ‘there’s someone down here - I can see white hair’,” he says.
“They started to remove all the girders and debris from around me but they still couldn’t get me out. The firemen got their hatchets out and hacked away at my desk.”
The 10th and last child to be brought out alive, he was treated for head and stomach injuries.
A further 28 children were injured, many seriously.
Even so physical injuries were superficial compared to the psychological damage.
Terrified of the tips and traumatised by nightmares, Jeff initially refused to go home and stayed with his grandmother in a nearby village.
When he did eventually come home, things did not get much better.
One of Aberfan's three local GPs, the late Dr Arthur Jones, spoke of a “strange bitterness between families who lost children and those who hadn’t; people just could not help it”.
“You have feelings of guilt that you survived, ‘why me?’,” Jeff says, keen to point out that some parents who lost children were extremely supportive of him.
“It is a very difficult emotion to come to terms with. We had no childhood, it was taken from us.
“Play is an important part of a child’s development but that stopped. Most of the kids we played with were gone and play was frowned upon by some parents who lost children.”
Survivor guilt was not the only burden.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) began to show but in 1966 there was little understanding or recognition of the syndrome.
Determined the world would learn from the mistakes of Aberfan he has contributed to NICE (National institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines on PTSD, taken part in clinical studies and spoken at conferences and personally helped victims of Enniskillen, Dunblane, Paddington and the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
“After the disaster we had interventions from psychiatrists,” Jeff says.
“But services were in their infancy. They didn’t really know how to deal with it and it wasn’t much help. There were sessions and we were offered different drugs.”
Jeff says the surviving children did not really have a formal education for many years.
"We didn’t want to go to school as we were afraid it would happen again,” he says.
"The children who survived had to come to terms with the loss of their friends and the scenes of carnage they witnessed."
Time and again, testimonies from the past describe the same thing – no one talked about what happened.
This was an age of stoicism, embodied by the tough, macho miners themselves. Psychological help was stigmatised and viewed with suspicion.
"I couldn’t speak about what happened to my parents because of the horrific things I saw, you felt you didn’t want to put them through that," says Jeff, who has never spoken about it to his mother to this day.
"One of the teachers who survived would, effectively through play, try to get us to open up as many of us became very closed, insular, wouldn’t confide in anybody.
"We were afraid to say what had happened to us on that day as when we started to talk about it we’d get very upset. It was a very difficult thing to talk about."
While some families contended with the loss of one, maybe two children, others tried to comfort survivors terrorised by nightmares, bedwetting and irrational behaviour.
"To a certain degree death was a part of that life but when it comes to children dying in an industrial accident, it really gets to people, even the most macho," Jeff says.
"So you had divorce rates go up, an increase in alcoholism, disease, anti-depressants, stress, anxiety which all lead to premature deaths."
It was estimated that at least 20 parents went on to die prematurely.
In 1968 one bereaved mother reportedly took an overdose of barbiturates. Countless others existed on sedatives and sleeping tablets.
The pills worked but only when it was not raining. Then they were too afraid to sleep, terrified the tips would slip again.
Dr Jones described the village as consumed with guilt, psychological problems, alcoholism and nervous breakdowns.
“By every statistic, patients seen, prescriptions written, deaths, I can prove that this is a village of excessive sickness,” he said.
Even 50 years on, Jeff suffers flashbacks.
The triggers are numerous and varied - events on TV, reports of other disasters, the sound of thunder, loud noises or simply being left alone.
“It’s something you want to get away from but you can’t and never will,” he says.
“Some days I get overwhelmed by crippling depression and I can’t function, can’t get out of bed.
“It totally and utterly closes you down. You can actually smell the school, somewhere in your psychological background you have the smell and the taste of the school, coal, the slurry; it takes you back there.”
There are thought to be about 20 or so of the surviving children left in Aberfan.
Some have moved away, some have sadly suffered early deaths; each of them has struggled to deal with the devastation wrought on their lives.
“Many of the people involved in the disaster find relationships very difficult,” says Jeff, who never married.
“Marriages have broken down because of the difficulties of living with someone who has gone through a major incident - the irrationality of your thoughts on occasions, your irritability and difficulty in confiding in people.”
There is no doubt in Jeff’s mind that a positive contribution to arise from the tragedy has been helping to improve psychological trauma understanding and help for other victims and their families.
Just as Dr Jones, who died in 2013, concluded: “Nowhere has grief been so concentrated. Lockerbie, Zeebrugge, King’s Cross – everywhere they used the lesson this place taught them.”
“And now down by the chapel that had been converted into a mortuary, the lines of parents were queuing to identify the small blackened bodies that were being dug out and laid on rows of tarpaulins.”
–"The Disaster", a bestselling novel based on Aberfan published in 1969 by Cardiff-born campaigning journalist John Summers
Charles Nunn, 81, originally from Swansea, was an acting detective inspector seconded to the Regional Crime Squad in 1966. Designated a Senior Identification Officer, he was part of a team tasked with setting up a makeshift mortuary in Aberfan’s Bethania Chapel.
By the time Charles Nunn and colleagues approached Aberfan at 10:30am it had been declared a disaster zone.
Roads for miles around were gridlocked - firefighters, police, medics, the army, civil defence, miners from surrounding pits - thousands of volunteers descended along with the initial stream of what would become a torrent of the world’s media.
“The chief constable of Merthyr had picked out Bethania Chapel to take the bodies,” Charles says. “They wanted somewhere close by and the chapel was just down the road from the school.
“It was a typical Welsh Valleys chapel. In the small Sunday school room at the back there was a cold water tap and a small gas stove. That was it.
“Bodies were already being carried in to the back room and nurses and Salvation Army volunteers would wash away the filthy black slurry.
“I would write a description of each child or adult and detail any possessions in their pockets – a handkerchief, sweets, anything that might help with identification.
“The little ones were laid on the pews, the adults on stretchers across the tops of the pews – males to the left and females to the right.
By about the fourth or fifth day we had to start taking bodies up a difficult winding staircase to the upstairs gallery.”
Many had died from asphyxiation but others had suffered catastrophic injuries.
Some bodies were marked ‘not to be viewed’ and identification was made through possessions, dental records or finger prints taken from toys.
For those that could be viewed, parents were escorted around the chapel and blankets would be lifted on each body until they recognised their child.
“I am still to this day struck by their sheer stoicism, their dignity,” Charles says.
“The area was so cramped that only two lots of relatives could come in at one time. Some had patiently queued to come in only to find their child wasn’t there.
"There was no screaming or shouting. There was a completely different mind-set back then.
“They then left the chapel to re-join the queue outside, mother relieving father, to keep their place outside waiting in the rain.
“It might have taken four, five, six days before they got what is now known as ‘closure’. That was awful.”
Charles adds: “It goes to show how primitive it seems, I wrote up a notice and pinned it to the chapel door informing parents that death certificates will be issued at the local fish and chip shop.
“Who decided that I haven’t got a clue, someone in Merthyr police I expect. It was a well-known location. There were no council offices nearby and someone must have said ‘the chip shop - everyone knows that’. It was the most efficient way. It seems so incongruous now.”
Later that day the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Prince Philip arrived at the chapel.
“They didn’t hang around,” Charles says. “It was an awful place.”
Many of the officers, Charles included, had children of a similar age.
“Of course, we were extremely distressed,” he says. “But we were all experienced detectives and ex-servicemen and we all got on with it.
“I do remember one of my colleagues - an amazing man who’d won a military medal in the war and was one of the hardest detectives I’d ever worked with.
“Each night before we left and the night shift took over, he would go round cwtching (a Welsh term for cuddle or comfort) the children and tuck in the blankets covering their bodies. It was a long cold night ahead.”
After 15 days and with the 144th body identified Charles and his team packed up and left Aberfan.
They had registered the deaths of 116 children, the majority aged between seven and 11, five teachers and 23 residents of the farm cottages up the mountain and a row of 18 terrace houses next to the school.
The victims’ ages ranged from three months to 82.
But the bitter aftermath – a saga of cruelty and indignity that would tear at Aberfan’s open wound - was just beginning to unfold.
The first disaster of its kind to be broadcast live into people’s homes, the plight of Aberfan horrified a watching world.
Donations to the Aberfan Disaster Fund poured in from all over the globe – 90,000 donations, among them an Irish widow’s husband’s gold presentation watch and a mother’s savings for a new winter coat.
It reached a total of £1,750,000, an estimated £20m-plus today – only the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund has ever outstripped it.
But it was to be branded by the press ‘Aberfan’s second disaster’.
Victims fought a bitter legal battle with its management - the Charity Commission and a group of trustees, local dignitaries - to get access to the money; they were initially refused help to pay for their children’s gravestones.
But the same fund was plundered by the government and handed to the very body which had been found to blame for the tragedy.
Villagers had started a campaign pleading that to continue living in the shadow of the spoil tips was psychological torture. They wanted them gone.
They were dismissed as irrational and told the tips were perfectly safe, that they would not be removed but landscaped instead. But then they had been told they were safe before the disaster.
Driven to distraction by anger and grief, a group of villagers emptied sacks of coal slurry in the reception area of the Welsh Office in protest. They were immediately arrested.
A visibly shaken Secretary of State for Wales, George Thomas - who had met with the miners just minutes before to tell them once again the tips would not be removed - capitulated. The tips would be gone.
But the NCB refused to take financial responsibility so the government and the Charity Commission sanctioned £150,000 to be drawn from the disaster fund to cover the costs.
Then there was the issue of compensation.
To reach an appropriate sum the Charity Commission proposed asking grief-stricken parents ‘exactly how close were you to your child?’; those found not to have been close to their children would not be compensated.
Mercifully, the proposal was never acted upon. The NCB initially offered £50 before raising it to the "generous offer" of £500.
A more substantial sum, it was advised, would have destroyed the working class recipients not used to large amounts of money.
The NCB also refused to pay for the Bethania Chapel to be razed and rebuilt, the congregation unable to worship there given its heartbreaking recent history.
Once again the disaster fund paid for a new chapel to be built in 1970.
Bethania closed in 2007 due to disrepair and a dwindling congregation and was put up for sale.
The neighbouring Capel Aberfan where bodies were taken before burial was burned down by a pyromaniac in 2015.
Its scorched façade remains in Aberfan.
“Never in my life have I seen anything like this. I hope I shall never see anything like it again. For years of course the miners have been used to… disaster. Today for the first time in history the roll call was called in the street. It was the miners’ children.”
– The late Cliff Michelmore’s first TV report from the scene
In the afternoon of the disaster Marilyn Brown, a 32-year-old mother of two, learned her eldest daughter, Janette, aged 10, had been killed in Pantglas. She and her late husband, Bernard, went on to have two other children. She has never before spoken publicly before this anniversary.
As soon as Marilyn Brown gave birth to her first child, Janette, she was taken from her.
Jeanette was born with two holes in her throat and whisked off to hospital 25 miles away where she was operated on twice as a newborn.
The problem recurred when she was six but she responded to further surgery and normal life resumed in the Brown household which by now included a son, Robert.
On the morning of the disaster Janette was reluctant to leave the house.
“She wasn’t very good that morning; she didn’t want to go to school,” Marilyn says. “And Bernard was adamant and he had told her off a little bit.
“She took Robert and called for another little girl up the street and she took them to school. She turned around and waved, I waved back and that was that.”
Within a few minutes of Marilyn pouring herself a cup of tea, her husband’s nephew was at the back door telling her something had happened at the school.
“I didn’t think for one minute that they were inside the school,” she says, “because it had happened so quickly. She’d only been out of the house say about a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes, so how could it have happened like that?"
Marilyn was told that Robert was safe and looked on helplessly as Bernard joined the digging until he was near collapse with exhaustion.
She says she went into denial and never considered Janette was dead, injured maybe but never dead.
Her father called to tell her bodies were being retrieved from the school and he and Bernard went off to find out more.
“They came back down and my father started to cry,” Marilyn says. “I said ‘is she alright?’ and he said that Janette had died, that they’d just identified her… I asked what she looked like and he said she’s got a tiny mark on her head and that she looked like she was sleeping.”
Marilyn broke down, frantically calling for her son Robert.
After that it goes blank.
She says she has found it difficult to cry from that day to this.
Not even on the “dreadful” day of the mass funeral for 81 children and one adult - a mother, Gwyneth Collins, killed in her home was buried with her two sons, killed at school.
“People came to find out if we needed help from quite a few sources,” Marilyn says, “but we refused their help because we said we have good family, we have good friends and we know we can rely on them all and we did, we did rely on them all. And they helped us a great deal.”
But, she adds: “I could never open up. I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of anybody, not that I can recall. I suppose I tried to be strong for other people I wouldn’t let myself go at all.”
Similarly, she says, other people did not talk about the disaster, only opening up years, decades later.
“My mother would say ‘you’ve got to talk about it, it’ll get it out of your system you’ll feel that bit of relief’… You feel you wanted to keep it in, was it helping you to think everything was ok? But it wasn’t, it wasn’t ok.”
There were coping mechanisms; the men formed the Ynysowen Male Voice Choir and Marilyn and many of the bereaved mothers set up the Young Wives Club.
The women started meeting in the basement of a Methodist chapel for camaraderie and organised trips away, entertainment for old people, concerts and keep-fit. For Marilyn it was a lifeline.
The club and the choir continue to this day.
Marilyn lost her husband, Bernard, five years ago. He, like many other parents, wrestled with guilt for having made their reluctant children go to school that day.
But, she says, she has found happiness in life through her other three children – Robert and daughters Lynne and Jayne.
“I talk about Janette to them,” Marilyn says. “She’s one of us, she’s mine, she’s ours she’ll always be ours won’t she?”
Tonight as with every other, Marilyn will go through her nightly ritual of turning to the photograph of Janette she keeps in her bedroom and wishing her goodnight.
"She went through a lot when she was a little baby and to come through all that and then this happens... Why? Why does it happen?
"When you look back you think how did you get through it? I think myself ‘how did you manage that?’."
"Some forget too soon the memory of children
We have seen buried, blinded, burning to death
Across the front pages of newspapers…
We have been silent, year after year,
While the hollow voices of our time have clamoured
Loudly, making headlines, achieving nothing".
- Excerpt from writer and poet Bryn Griffiths' Elegy for Aberfan, commissioned by Television Wales and West and read on ITN networks on the first anniversary
David Hurn, 82, has an international reputation as one of the UK’s most influential photographers. A member of the legendary photography cooperative Magnum, he was born in England where his Welsh parents were posted with the army and spent his early childhood in Cardiff.
David Hurn was in Bristol with fellow Magnum photographer Ian Berry when news came through on his car radio. He turned his red mini around and headed to Aberfan, arriving about 15:00 that afternoon.
“One of the main recollections I have is the strong feeling that they didn’t want us there,” he says.
“That was the overpowering feeling virtually all the time one was there. I didn’t talk to anybody I don’t think at all the entire time. But I very consciously made the decision that I needed to be there.”
Photographing miners digging to reach their children – a Herculean effort that continued throughout the night under the glare of arc lights – there are the obvious issues of sensitivity and privacy.
“I guess if you’re a photographer with some sort of integrity you feel that the purpose of your pictures is to let the world know accurately or as accurately as possible what is happening,” David says.
“And sometimes things have enormous importance, for good or bad, and that is your job to record that happening so the world knows.
“In this case it’s pretty obvious what had happened was obscene; you wanted to show that this is exactly what happened so there could be no cover up, and that in my mind was a very powerful justification for what I was doing.”
"Buried alive by the coal board"
It was the NCB’s chairman Lord Robens - criticised for not going to the disaster scene immediately and attending a ceremony installing him as chancellor or the University of Surrey -who condemned press coverage as ‘ghoulish’.
Ironic, given the further suffering meted out to the village by the conduct of the NCB who desperately tried to spin-doctor its way out of blame.
Lord Robens insisted to reporters that it was “impossible to know that there was a spring in the heart of this tip”.
It was an incendiary statement given that everyone else seemed to know and Ordnance Survey maps proved it.
It is not difficult to understand how grief morphed into a deep, visceral anger.
At the inquest into the deaths there was uproar with people shouting ‘our children have been murdered’ and ‘mark the death certificate buried alive by the coal board’.
During the subsequent 76-day long tribunal of inquiry – at the time the longest-running inquiry of its kind in British history - the NCB held that it was an act of God - geological factors and heavy rain.
True, it had been raining, heavily, but not unseasonably so for the area and the time of year.
With the evidence stacked against them, towards the end of the inquiry Lord Robens dramatically admitted the NCB - pilloried for its total absence of tipping policy - was to blame. To have done so earlier on would have spared the victims immeasurable anguish.
The tribunal concluded the disaster was not the result of “villainy” but was “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 a total lack of direction from above”.
No one lost their jobs, was demoted or fined.
In fact, two years later Lord Robens was chosen to chair a review of health and safety which resulted in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 which continues to regulate practice to this day.
But there is no doubt that many led the rest of their lives with the spectre of Aberfan on their conscience, the distressing consequences of their mistakes published in full view of a horrified world.
David and Ian’s photo-essay on Aberfan was published by every major magazine around the globe and was mentioned in Parliament.
“Aberfan was an extraordinary moment for me,” he says. “It just affected my whole life because it was obscene.
"It brought back to me the idea about Wales. I'd done very little work in Wales, I’d been in London. Suddenly it had put into my mind the idea about going back home.”
Within two years he had left his studio in London’s King’s Road and decamped to south Wales where he lived temporarily in a camper van.
He went on to set up the prestigious School of Documentary Photography in Newport.
In 2000 he published Wales: Land of My Father, a photographic documentary of the dramatic changes the decades after 1966 would bring for Wales.
He continues with his vocation of photographing the ordinary and every day of Wales, its landscape and people.
Friday, 21 October 2016
"Aberfan is different.
When men perished in their hundreds in some eruption of blazing methane, it was possible to view it with a kind of blind ferocity, the sort of ferocity we've always used in the face of war.
Men were below the earth doing a grim and unnatural job and sometimes the job would blow up in their faces and most of the doom was underground, out of sight, tucked tactfully away from the public view. But Aberfan is different.”
– Excerpt of a eulogy by writer Gwyn Thomas broadcast on the BBC's Today programme
If you take the old single-track parish road which winds its way to the top of the Taff Valley and look down to the village of Aberfan, at first glance there is little to set it apart from any of the surrounding former mining communities.
The rows of terraces so typical of the south Wales coalfield nestle, virtually unchanged in five decades, at the bottom of the steep valley.
The river Taff which skirts the village, once clogged and black with colliery filth is clear once again and the salmon, otters and kingfishers have returned.
The site of the once mighty Merthyr Vale colliery has all but vanished, landscaped and covered with trees.
Its only relic, the mine sheave wheel on which the village turned for so long, is concreted into the roundabout of a newly-built road around the village.
The bustling high street of family-run shops is also gone.
Aberfan, along with the rest of the disinherited industrialised south Wales Valleys, has struggled with high unemployment and its incumbent social problems.
In the cemetery on the hillside above the village, the two rows of children’s graves are prominent.
The pearl white granite arches have offered a long-awaited redemption from pain for so many parents whose inscriptions have been added over the years as they were reunited with the children they waved goodbye to that cold, foggy, October morning.
The cemetery, maintained by the disaster fund which continues to offer educational grants, is immaculate as is the memorial garden where Pantglas school once stood.
The garden’s tranquillity is not disturbed by the rhythmic whisk of traffic directly above it on the A470, the main route from the valleys into Cardiff, which now cuts through the path of the landslide.
There is not a petal out of place in the borders of flowers which mirror the classroom configuration – a section for standard one, standard two, standard three and standard four.
Down the road on the site of the 18 houses which were destroyed is the Aberfan and Merthyr Vale Community Centre, again built with money from the disaster fund, where children learn to swim and adults attend Zumba and spin classes.
Over the way a new school – Ynysowen Community Primary – was opened by the Queen in 2012 and is surrounded by playing fields created by the tonnes of shale waste cleared from the tips.
As a result of Aberfan, legislation passed in 1969 put in place a strict policy on the practice of tipping.
This in turn led to legislation being amended and reviewed across the world.
The majority of tips in south Wales have been removed and the valleys, like Aberfan’s, are green again.
But look long enough and the outline of where they once stood above the village can be clearly seen.
Despite fervent efforts to cultivate it, the grass which grows over the site of the tips is a different colour, a coarse, sickly yellow, as if nature itself refuses to ‘give up the ghost’ and forgive the "appalling calamity" of the past.
It is consoling to think the pain which consumed the village - the shattered lives and unjust treatment of its working men and women - has made a significant difference, informing and influencing countless changes over the past 50 years.
The majority of those men and women may not be around today.
But the white-arch graves and the tainted grass above them will serve as an indelible reminder for who knows how many generations to come of their part in a defining moment in our nation’s history.
For that dreadful day 50 years ago would ensure that, in the stirring words of the late, great broadcaster, writer and poet Gwyn Thomas, the ‘true voice of the English-speaking valleys’, Aberfan is different.