As a warning to those who might not wish to hear it, we’re going to be talking here about the Aberfan Disaster.
8 years old at the time, Melvyn Walker was in the middle of the classroom. He recalls his teacher going to the window upon hearing the sound of thunder.
Brian Williams, 7 years old at the time, was towards the back of the classroom. He described a sound like an aeroplane coming in to land. Then silence, and then lots of screaming and crying.
Melvyn was in the middle of the classroom, and was pushed to the side and up against the windows as he struggled free from getting buried. Melvyn recalls seeing adults standing in a daze through the window, and weren’t responding to his cries of help, so he smashed the window with a piece of wood.
He saw the hand of a girl towards the back of the class, and went back to pull her out before escaping by clambering over the debris and through the hole left where the roof had come down.
Brian was pulled out of the window by the school caretaker, who’s own children were buried in another part of the school with Brian’s 10 year old sister.
Jeff Edwards woke up immersed in slurry to find his stomach pinned in by his desk, a broken radiator trapping his leg and pouring hot water onto it. A deceased girl next to him. Eventually a fireman saw his blonde hair.
Yvonne Price, a St Johns ambulance nurse recalls the miners pulling Jeff out that day. She remembers Jeff whimpering, without the strength to cry, as he was passed along a human chain. After him, only the debris and the dead were being passed down the chain.
Yvonne remembers one of the miners in the chain exclaiming “that was my child” before he continued working. David Davies’ father believed his son to be dead when handing him out of the wreckage, but another nurse later found him to be just barely alive.
Reverend Irving Penberthy recalls walking into Bethania Chapel to see bodies of children, cleaned and wrapped in blankets by Saint Johns ambulance nurses and helpers, laid on the pews. The fathers of children would walk down the rows, lifting the blankets, and breaking down when they found their own children.
144 people were killed. 116 were children.
How do you return and rebuild in a place of such trauma? Could you live under the same hill, with the other tips still standing there? Could you again believe those in authority who say that you are safe now? How does a village survive with a generation of children missing?
For the next two years, Melvyn Walker couldn’t bring himself to return to school. He would walk in his uniform up the mountainside and sit there waiting to go home. He still experiences flashbacks and anxiety attacks when he hears childrens’ voices. He finds it difficult to hold down a job and form relationships.
The nurse Yvonne Price couldn’t control her emotions whenever she saw something on television or in the newspaper about the Aberfan disaster. She waited 43 years before returning.
Ros Bastow, who was a 7 year old in one of the classrooms that wasn’t buried that day, avoided speaking to anybody about the disaster – even her own family – for 50 years. If people ever asked where she was from, she’d say she was from Merthyr Tydfil.
Others found it easier to move on, and dedicate their lives to their community through more difficult decades when mines closed and jobs were lost. Jeff Edwards grew up to be the Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, and David Davies grew up to be a High Sheriff of Mid Glamorgan and Chairman of the Aberfan Memorial Charity.
The whole of Pantglas Junior School, and 19 other houses were destroyed. A memorial garden now. The Bryntaf Cemetery should be visible from the train across the valley, with the white graves of the uppermost section dedicated to those who died in the disaster.
The parents of the children who were lost are still being buried alongside their children. Around 500 people attended the funeral of Hettie Williams – one of the 4 teachers who survived – in 2018. It should have been the same for Renee Williams, another teacher who passed recently during the pandemic.
Events like this still happen around the world where engineering standards are absent or not followed, or where wealthy corporations, like the National Coal Board, similarly can’t be held accountable for the choices they make by the communities of individuals who they put at risk.