ABERFAN - 40 Years On

Through our web site we are privileged to recall memories of days gone by.

However one major episode in the life of the “Beachley Boys” has never been reported. I refer to the tragedy of Aberfan in which no fewer than 144 people lost their lives; but more poignant was the fact that 116 of those were young children. I know that numerous survey apprentices were involved in the rescue operations and bearing in mind that the 21st October marks the 40th anniversary of that disaster I thought it would be fitting to recall my memoirs of the Chepstow Apprentices involvement.

Aberfan was a dreary, perhaps rather a dirty, small village built on an incline with the Merthyr Vale deep mine at the lower end and Pantglas Junior School perched at the top. Lurking some 2000 metres behind the school were the slag tips with their daily feed of colliery waste climbing ever higher towards the sky. Those tips were to prove so significant on that damp foggy day. But the weather could not dampen the joy of the children as they entered the school at nine o’clock on that Friday morning of the 21st October, for in six hours time they would be breaking up for a weeks half term holiday. But that holiday , or any other holiday, never came for less than sixteen minutes later one hundred and sixteen of those tiny children were dead!

Days of rain and underground streams had turned the waste slag tips into molten slurry until without warning a complete tip became unstable, turning into a gigantic unstoppable wave estimated at over 80 miles per hour heading directly for the village. Three houses stood in its path, all three were swept away together with their occupants. But another building was also situated in in its path--Pantglas Junior School --where 141 young pupils aged ten and under had just answered the register. The slurry hit the school, smashed walls and windows, brought down heavy beams and smothered the children with tons of that black death, burying them alive. Only 25 children survived!

On the day of the disaster I was a Ssgt instructing potential Field Surveyors at the Army Apprentices College in nearby Chepstow and being the nearest military unit to Aberfan it was perhaps natural that we were put on stand-by in case we were needed. However during those desperate first hours no thought of outside help was considered as the distraught local miners dug with their bare hands to clutch at anything which might help them rescue those poor children. But the last child to be brought out alive was registered at 11 am, less than two hours after the slurry had hit the school, all others were presumed dead!. It was now time to seek help.

We moved into the village some 24 hours later, the Squadron consisting of 150 adult apprentices and a few specialist equipment operators plus medical staff. Nothing will ever dim my memory of the sight which greeted us. A great mass of thick, deep black slurry covering an area a mile in length from the now contorted tips to the village streets. And clambering in that mess the villagers still working with spade and shovel seeking the lost children. All around stood those young mothers, their faces now etched and aged with grief looking tearfully towards the school ruins still praying that somewhere under that slurry their son or daughter may have survived. In fact they were praying for a miracle!

Our first task, with the authority and assistance of the local police, was to throw a cordon around the village allowing only essential personnel to enter. Yes, the ghouls and sight seers were already arriving!  Dividing our troops in two we established an eight hour on, four hour off, shift pattern working a triangular system between the three major tasks that confronted us. This would continue for another week for it took five days before the last person was found, an occupant of one of the houses swept away in the avalanche. Firstly, the slurry was still moving so a sand bag wall was essential to avoid the tip engulfing more of the village. Next was the gruesome task of hand sorting the slurry being excavated by mechanical methods to look for bodies or parts of bodies dislocated by the terrible force inflicted upon them. The third task was the Mortuary deployment where those young bodies were washed, cleaned and laid out so that in sudden death dignity could be afforded them. No Mother could ever be allowed to see the state of those youngsters prior to our harrowing task.

Before we left for the safety and calm of Chepstow the official death total was established as one hundred and forty four dead, 28 adults and 116 children. In this day and age we would probably be given counselling, but the part we played was nothing compared to the grief of those parents who even today wonder why it happened.

I have often revisited that little village. Gone are the tips, gone is the colliery, gone is the school but more to the point--gone are the children, for a complete generation was wiped out on that damp October morning. Aberfan to me ,and I’m sure those Chepstow Apprentices, will be forever known as the town without children! 

A memorial garden now stands on the site of Pantglas School. small stone walls show where the classrooms once were, whilst each gravestone has a photograph of each child lying beneath in that mass grave.

Ron Birch


With thanks to Ron Birch  for this contribution