‘They dug, prayed & wept’ – John Humphrys witnessed the Aberfan disaster 50 years ago – as he recalled in Radio Times
On a crisp October morning in 1966, I was about to start on my second cup of coffee in the television news room in Cardiff. The news editor handed me a piece of Press Association copy, reporting a tip slide at Aberfan. There was nothing unusual in that; the waste tips above the old collieries were slipping all the time. But this time it seemed serious.
I was familiar with the village of Aberfan from my years on the Merthyr Express, so I knew that there was a primary school below the tip. I drove up the valley without a camera crew, to take a look. The steep sides of the Welsh valleys are lined with little terraces, and you could tell the miners’ cottages because it was the day when they had their coal dumped outside. Cheap coal was one of the few perks.
Normally, the women would have been busy shovelling it up and carrying it through to the coal shed. But on this morning they were standing at their doors looking worried, peering up the valley. They knew something bad had happened and so, by now, did I. None of us could imagine how bad.
Two hours earlier, work- men had been sent to the top of the tip that loomed above Aberfan, grey-black and ugly. There had been ominous signs that it was sinking more than usual. A deep depression had formed, like the crater in a volcano. As the men watched, waste rose and formed a lethal tidal wave of slurry that roared down the hillside, gathering speed until it was 30ft high and destroying everything in its path.
The slide crushed part of the school and a few terraced houses alongside like concrete dropping on a matchbox. And what that foul mixture of black waste did not flatten, it filled… class-rooms choked with the stuff until the school became a tomb.
The moment the news reached them, hundreds of miners abandoned the coal face. There they were – their faces still black, save for the streaks of white from the sweat and the tears – as they dug, prayed and wept. They were digging for their own children.
Every so often, someone would scream out for silence and we would stand frozen. Was that the cry of a child? Sometimes it was, and some were saved. I saw a burly policeman, his helmet comically lopsided, carrying a little girl, her legs dangling, her shoes missing. Thank God, she was alive. The men dug all day and night, and all the next day. They dug until there were no more faint cries, no more hope, but still they kept going. They were digging for bodies now.
I watched as the tiny coffins mounted in the chapel. There is nothing so poignant as the sight of a child’s coffin. By the end there were 116 of them, and 28 adults. I was a novice then, and this was the biggest story in the world.
I went to the local pub and recorded what I’d seen down a scratchy phone line. By then, the cameraman’s four films, shot on a wind-up camera, were being processed. Just over ten minutes in all. The editor joined up the reels and laid my voice on top. It was sent up a Post Office line to London and then around the world. Did I do the tragedy justice? Of course not. I doubt my words were even necessary. Those first pictures – grainy, silent, black and white – were all that was needed.
This article was first published in 2004
‘Three inches from death’ – For Jeff Edwards, the last child rescued, the nightmare goes on
Jeff Edwards remembers the morning of 21 October 1966 with chilling clarity. The candy shrimps and flying saucers bought in the tuck shop before lessons started. The Tintin book he borrowed from the classroom library on, this, the final day before half-term. Then the noise, the thunderous noise that silenced the excited chatter between the eight-year-old and his classmates. Finally, a scene so utterly horrific it haunts him even now, 50 years on.
“The noise got louder and louder and the lights of the classroom started to shake back and forth. The next thing I remember was waking up with all this debris over me and a dead girl on my left shoulder. I had no idea what had happened. I just thought the building had collapsed. There were lots of people screaming, but I couldn’t move or do anything. What really affected me was this dead girl on my shoulder. The difference between life and death was just three inches. I was alive and she was dead. I had nightmares about it for years.”
For two hours the terrified youngster was wedged against the body of his classmate. “The roof had fallen in, a desk was pushing against my stomach and my right leg was stuck in the radiator and was leaking hot water over me.” Eventually, the rescuers spotted his mop of blond hair and he was cut free. He was the last survivor to be pulled from the wreckage of the school and one of only four from his class of 34 to escape death.
Trauma counselling, then still in its infancy, was provided, but couldn’t stop the night terrors, or the guilt. “I remember going to one child psychiatrist and they said to me, ‘Look, when you have these nightmares about a child on your shoulder, think of happy things like birthday parties.’ But when I thought about birthday parties I thought about the kids that used to be at those birthday parties, and of course they were all dead.”
Very slowly, life did resume and eventually Jeff landed a top job in the City of London as an accountant. On the face of it, things were good, but the mental scars never truly healed. He has never married. “I wouldn’t want to pass on the turmoil that’s in my mind, if I’m honest,” he says.
In 1994 he returned to Aberfan. “Giving purpose to my life,” is how he puts it. He launched projects to help teenagers whose lives were blighted by the lack of job prospects. He became politically active, becoming Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil in 2005. He’s worked out how to cope. But coping is all it is. “Things like the earthquakes in Nepal and Italy just bring it all back. There are still days when I just can’t get out of bed, so deep is the depression.”
So where will he be for Friday’s anniversary, when the world remembers the 144 children and adults who perished in Pantglas Junior School? “In many ways I’d sooner be on the other side of the world. It’s a very personal and emotional day. I think the majority of people affected want the 21st to go as quickly as possible.”
Interview by Terry Payne
There was tragedy… and a cover-up: Huw Edwards hails the hero of a long fight for justice
The tranquillity is enduring: no visitor to the garden of remembrance in Aberfan leaves unmoved. It was laid out in class-room-size rectangles on the site of the old Pantglas Junior School, a simple memorial to the children and adults who lost their lives half a century ago.
One of the benches bears a small plaque in memory of a local hero, Desmond Ackner QC, the barrister who represented the families at the Tribunal of Inquiry [he died in 2006]. Ackner proved to be an inspired choice: the families knew that an “outsider” (he was a distinguished English barrister) would not be burdened with any local links. His work is not forgotten in Aberfan. Had it not been for his diligence and commitment, a state-owned industry might have escaped the blame for one of the greatest man-made disasters in modern British history.
Many people have suggested a powerful parallel, comparing the conduct of the National Coal Board (NCB) in 1966 with that of South Yorkshire Police after Hillsborough in 1989. Both public bodies, led by strong-willed men, seemingly put institutional face-saving before the needs of bereaved families. Lord Robens, then chairman of the NCB, initially approved a strategy of complete denial. At the tribunal, his lawyers argued that the disaster was caused by a “critical geological environment”, and claimed there was no way of knowing a tip-slide was foreseeable.
The transcripts of the tribunal are sobering. Witnesses spent most of the time denying the significance of unheeded warnings, and the complete lack of clear guidelines for tipping coal waste, high above mining villages.
The final report did blame the NCB. Yes, the disaster could have been foreseen, not least because of previous slides, and repeated warnings that were ignored. But – and just imagine this today – no one in authority was demoted or sacked and Robens, having pretended to offer his resignation, stayed in post.
There is another unpleasant dimension to the story of Aberfan’s long and painful recovery. The memorial garden has been improved and refurbished in recent years, thanks to an injection of money from the Welsh government in Cardiff. The important thing to realise is that this cash was repayment of money owed.
In the aftermath of the disaster, a charitable fund drew contributions from around the world. People were deeply moved by the suffering of Aberfan. The money was to rebuild the community. It is still shocking that then Welsh Secretary George Thomas insisted on using part of this fund to help pay for the removal of the tips above the village. Today’s Labour politicians are rightly ashamed, which is why Ron Davies and Rhodri Morgan made the decent decision to repay the money with interest.
The tribunal delivered a deeply flawed report, but at least today’s community is benefiting from the full impact of the financial support. It has taken the best part of half a century for the people of Aberfan to get a real sense of justice.
By Huw Edwards