50 years ago today, on 21 October 1966, a tragedy happened in a small mining village in Wales which horrified the world. At 9:15am, Pantglas school in a place called Aberfan was engulfed by a river of coal debris. 116 children (more than half of the school’s pupils) and 28 adults were killed. Dozens more were rescued from the horror, with people from Aberfan and surrounding villages digging with their hands in a desperate attempt to save some lives.
The tragedy was due to a tip of coal waste (“slag heap” as they were often called) which had been piled on the side of the mountain against which the village nestles, and was entirely preventable. For months the local council had been warning the National Coal Board (NCB) of the risk, but the NCB had taken no notice.
In a tribunal held after the tragedy, the NCB were found guilty of negligence and of corporate manslaughter. However, they never paid a penny of compensation to the families, nor did they pay to have the numerous slag heaps rendered safe. Local families had to raise the money to do this themselves. After years of campaigning, in 1997 the newly-formed Welsh Assembly government finally repaid the families the money that they had raised. Some 10 years later the Welsh Assembly government paid the families a much larger sum, to correct for the inflation in the intervening 40 years.
I have been to the cemetery and memorial park in Aberfan. It is a beautiful tribute and memory to the tragedy that happened that wet October day in 1966.
Here is a very moving poem simply called Aberfan by Vera Rich, an English-born poet.
I have seen their eyes, the terrible, empty eyes
Of women in a glimmerless dawn, and the hands
Of men who have wrestled through long years with the dark
Underpinning of the mountains, strong hands that fight
In dumb faith that what was once flesh born of their flesh
And is earth of the earth, should rest in the earth of God,
Not that of the devil’s making…
The Tip had crouched like a plague-god, with the town,
A victim in reversion, held beneath
A vast, invisible paw… Not a lion to toss
A proud, volcano-mane of destruction, crouched
Like a rat, it waited…
I have seen their eyes, and the empty hands of men,
And they walk like victims of a second Flood
In a world no longer home, where the void of sky
Between tall mountains looms as a cenotaph
For a generation of laughter…
I have seen them
Walking, near-ghosts, wraiths from a half-formed legend
Of this more-than-Hamelin, where, on an autumn Friday,
Between nine and ten of the clock, death raised his flute
And the children followed…