Aberfan mourns children killed in 1966 tragedy Welsh mine closings compound disaster

November 10, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

ABERFAN, Wales -- It's quiet most days in Aberfan, now that the mine is closed. But a deadly, unnatural hush fell over the little town at 9:15 a.m. Oct. 21, as it does each year.

Most townspeople stayed home with their memories. A few climbed to the cemetery, up a steep road above the town, to lay wreaths. From there they could look past the two rows of white arches, stretching across the green hills, down across the grazing sheep to a plain and quiet park, with its small plaque:

"To those we love and miss so very much."

There are 116 arches. Each represents a dead child. Where sheep now graze, a huge slag heap from the coal mine once stood. Below this black mountain, where the garden now lies, lay Pant Glas elementary school.

It was cold Monday, with hazy sunshine -- not like the day, 25 years ago, when the mountain moved.

On Oct. 21, 1966, it had been raining for days, and a cold, dark, soaking downpour fell on the coal-begrimed mining village. School had just begun. One boy, protesting illness, begged to stay home, but his mother packed him off toward Pant Glas. He died. A school bus, held up by fog, arrived late. Its passengers lived.

Aberfan, like all Welsh mining towns, lies at the bottom of its valley. Dawn comes late, dusk early. Shops line the narrow main street at the bottom. A few streets of little stone houses, virtually identical, straggle up from this trough. The mine, called Merthyr Vale, dominated the economy, and the slag heap, perched on the hill above, dominated the town.

A later investigation ruled that the slag heap had been built over a spring and was basically unstable, a disaster waiting to happen. Three days of rain had washed away whatever had held it to the hillside all those years.

At 9:15 a.m., the heap broke loose. There was a rumble. Teachers told students to get under desks. The children, panicked, tried to run.

"I had just managed to stand and was looking at the window as all this black came through," said Gaynor Madgewick, then 8, who has written about that day.

The slag heap grumbled across a farm, took away a row of houses, crushed Pant Glas school, flowed down the hill and came to rest against the wall of the town's hotel.

"Bodies lay crushed and buried, and the survivors lay looking at their best friends dead," Gaynor wrote. "The muck was at least a yard and a half up the wall. Windows were smashed and nothing was left whole."

It killed 144 people -- 116 children, aged 7 to 11; five teachers; the school dinner helper; and 22 people who lived in the houses.

Work at the mine halted; the miners were ordered to go to Aberfan, with their shovels. Many fathers spent the next two days trying to dig out their children. A very few children survived, all found in the first two hours. After that, there was nothing but bodies.

One of every two families in the town suffered a loss. The horrible irony was evident for many miners: They had dug the coal and built the mountain that killed their children.

With a generation gone, many predicted Aberfan would die. It hasn't, but it really hasn't recovered either.

The world responded with gifts that eventually totaled $3 million plus, unaccountably, boxes and boxes of toys. Aberfan used the money to build the park and the arches and to erect a fine community centerthat has become the new core of the town.

But the town also had to spend $250,000 of the money to have the slag heap removed. The National Coal Board, which was blamed for the tragedy, refused to pay -- a refusal that still rankles here.

Disaster counseling was virtually unknown in 1966, and the people of Aberfan were left to deal with their grief themselves.

By all accounts, they haven't done well. Local doctors say at least 20 parents died prematurely from the strain and grief. Drinking is heavy. Many people still can't talk of the disaster.

"I worked with a woman here for three years," said a young man at the Community Center, "and she never once mentioned that she was in the school that day."

The disaster spurred a move to get rid of the slag heaps up and down the valleys. Economics helped; the demand for coal dried up, and the mines began to close.

Now the valley looks almost as it did before the mines came. The hills are green and clean, the air pure.

But the price is the highest unemployment in Britain. Merthyr Vale mine, one of the last to close, died two years ago. Its 526 men lost their jobs, leaving Aberfan stricken once again, not yet dead but not quite alive, either.

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