Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Aberfan Perspective

I type this post at around 9.30am-10am.

At this time, 44 years ago today, Britain and Wales in particular, experienced one of the most heart-breaking disasters in living memory - the Aberfan Disaster. 144 people were killed. Of these, 5 were teachers and 116 were pupils aged between 7-10 which accounted for almost half of Pantglas Junior School.

I was not born at the time, but it is an event that scars the Welsh psyche - and mine. I have myself however, paid a visit to the Garden of Remembrance and it proved to be one of the most over-powering experiences of my life.

'A terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude'
This was one of the conclusions laid bare in the 1967 Davies Inquiry. For this was a cruel disaster. Not only shouldn't it have happened in the first place - it was a damning legacy of National Coal Board negligence as Davies rightly pointed out, but it was also a stroke of awful misfortune for those that lay beneath the Aberfan tip that fateful morning.

It was early morning and the children had only just arrived for school. It was also the last day before half-term. Events could so easily have conspired to have saved these lives. Just an hour earlier, or a day later, and these children would not have been at school at the time of the slide.

In total, some 150,000 cubic metres of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed down the hillside at high speed. Some 40,000 cubic metres of this slide went into the village in a slurry some 40 feet deep. The slide destroyed a farm and twenty terraced houses along Moy Road and slammed into the northern side of the Junior school.

Through the morning fog of that sunny morning 44 years ago, with visibility no more than some 50 metres, the children were leaving Assembly having just sang 'All Thing Bright and Beautiful'. They couldn't see what was coming, but they could hear it coming down the hillside towards them.

Gaynor Minett, a then 8-year old survivor of the tragedy said:

"It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. 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, until 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."

Please read these 'Witness' statements from the BBC website. They're also very moving and heart-breaking.

A Welsh Tragedy - A Personal Pilgrimage
It must have been 6 or 7 years ago now when, along with Anders Hanson, we happened to be going to-and-from Cardiff from Aberystwyth. We happened to be passing Merthyr on the A470 and with time to spare, asked Anders if he'd be willing to detour into Aberfan.

Because, as a Welsh child, this disaster has been indelibly marked in my mind. As a child of history but more importantly, as a child, this awful story resonated with me a young boy more than any other. For at the end of the day, as the proverb goes, 'There but for the grace of God go I'. I was a school child attending class and attending morning Assembly like any other in Wales. My school happened to be in Whitland, 20-25 years later but for these poor children and their familes, their's just happened to be Aberfan's Pantglas Junior School on the morning of October 21st 1966.

So it was with this morbid sense of 'belonging' almost, that I felt a responsibility to pay my respects at the Garden of Remembrance that now stands on the site of the old school. As mentioned above, it was one of the most harrowing and emotional moments of my life. Seeing the plaque as you enter, coldly state the facts of the number of deaths that had occurred on that site all those years before, sent a cold cold shiver down my spine. I'm pretty sure I shed a few quiet tears of grief.

I didn't go to the cemetary. I couldn't have coped with that. The Garden was enough.

The Aberfan Perspective
Because, and this is the thing, these children were innocent. They weren't 33 Chilean miners who voluntarily risked their lives by going down a mine. They were just happy-go-lucky young folk who were looking forwards to half-term. Far too many of them, never got their holidays.

This gives you perspective - real perspective. When the country cowers at the news that emanated from Parliament yesterday with the biggest public spending cuts seen since the 1970s, it's easy for us to get embroiled in the problems and challanges of today. But just looking back into history at some of the much greater challenges that our forefathers have had to contend with, puts 2010 into its rightful perspective.

We are very fortunate. As a human race, we more often than not learn from our mistakes - it's what we call 'progress'. It's why we've not had another 'Aberfan' in the ensuing 44 years.

It's a tragedy though and an indictment of the human race itself, that 'Aberfan' ever happened in the first place.


  1. Good post Mark.

    I visited Aberfan, and the the cemetery, a couple of years ago. Utterly heartbreaking.

    I've written about the disaster in my PhD thesis as both the authors I've written on respond to it. Gwyn Thomas's radio response, is well worth a listen on the BBC website.

    I've also been fortunate enough to talk to a historian who has worked extensively on the disaster (Dr Martin Johnes - see the project webiste here: ). He told me how the inquests and inquiry couldn't go into detail about how the children were killed as it would be too traumatic for the families and the communities - it was utterly horrific. His book, 'Aberfan: Government and Disasters' is well worth a read.

    Also, did you happen to see the recent art exhibition about Aberfan by Shimon Attie,called The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan - an Anatomy of a Welsh Village. Very haunting. The artist was one of the few 'outsiders' the community had welcomed for years (they were understandably annoyed and upset as being used by sociologists and psychologists as trauma case studies)

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your comments. I need to my buy Martin Jones' book - I've been meaning to for some time.

    I'll google Gwyn Thomas's radio response now to listen to it. I've been watching some archive Pathe and BBC footage of it this morning.

    It's a sobering, sobering day.

  3. Wow. I never knew about this and it is fascinating when you hear about such awful events. As a teacher too, it is even more upsetting for it to happen to so many young children with their whole lives ahead of them.


  4. Hi Simon,

    Yes, the teacher angle to it must be particularly harrowing - particularly to those teachers who survived in this case who saw so much potential and good-ness perish in front of their eyes.

  5. 45 years Mark. 1966....

  6. Hi Andrew,

    I wrote this blog post a year ago hence the date. I've re-linked it a year on because I can't better what I wrote then.