Half a century of grief poured out of the small town of Aberfan yesterday as it remembered a generation lost when a coal tip slid on to their school.
Among the 144 people killed on October 21, 1966, were 116 children. Yesterday the Prince of Wales led tributes and planted a tree in Aberfan’s memorial garden alongside one planted by the Queen. The prince said: “I can never forget the feeling of utter despair as I heard of the unspeakable tragedy.”
Survivors were among the 1,000 people attending a service in the cemetery where those who lost their lives were laid to rest. A minute’s silence was held at 9.15am, the moment Pantglas junior school was hit by 150,000 tonnes of black sludge. Among those at the service was Susan Maybank, now Robertson, whose rescue by Victor Jones, a policeman, was captured in a photograph.
Marilyn Morris, 64, said: “Six children from my street died. We just blanked it from our minds. It was such a shock that we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk about it, but now we are and we are feeling much better for it.”
The prince read a message from the Queen, in which she said: “I well remember my visit with Prince Philip after the disaster, and the posy I was given by a young girl, which bore the heart-breaking inscription, ‘From the remaining children of Aberfan’.”
The other evening I came across a programme on the BBC about the Aberfan disaster. I was 18 years old in 1966 when the disaster took place and I can remember very vividly the shocking news reports that came through on the TV and radio. Of course then, there was no mass media and so the reports could never really portray fully, the horror of what had happened.
During the programme I saw the above photograph for the first time and even now I am still shocked at the scene of utter devastation. 116 young children died along with 28 adults including teachers and support staff. One young child who was pulled from the school alive said that her teacher had shielded several children with her body and had been killed in the process, but because of the teachers sacrifice she had survived.
The most appalling fact that emerged from this programme was that although the NCB were held responsible for the tragedy and nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident, no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted, and Lord Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions. The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child (they initially offered £50 per child).
As a parent you send your children off to school with the full expectation that they will return safely later in the day. Through NCB negligence and ignoring of safety guidelines by the Mines Inspectorate there were many parents in Aberfan who sent their children off to school that morning , only to have to go and identify their bodies in a makeshift mortuary over the following 36 hours.
Even 50 years on, the heartbreak does not diminish for those bereaved families.