I remember it on the news like it was yesterday. I remember my mother watching and crying. I remember the images of the rescuers digging amongst the slurry. I remember the TV showing then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson walking around the scene. Although it didn’t directly involve me – I lived 200 miles away at the time, it is one of those childhood mental images that will remain with me always, much as the images of September 11, 2001, are etched forever on the minds of so many of us.
For days the rain had been falling, soaking the bleak Welsh coal-mining village of Aberfan and the 800-ft. slag heap towering above it like a black, oozing Everest. Then one morning last week, David John Evans, a maintenance man with a local colliery, climbed to the top of the waste heap to look into reports that the gigantic mass was moving. With a shock, Evans discovered that it was. “Suddenly I saw the heap shifting,” he recalled later. “The movement was like thunder. I could hear trees on each side being crushed to matchwood.”
Undermined by water pouring down its slopes, the great mass had split, and a 40-ft. tide of thick goo suddenly rolled like molten lava toward a cluster of homesâ€”and toward the red-brick Pantglas Junior and Infants School, where some 250 youngsters between seven and eleven were just sitting down to class. Across the street, Mrs. Pearl Crowe heard the rumble and looked out of her window. “I saw a black mass of moving waste pouring steadily into the school, and part of the school collapsed. I was paralyzed.” Ten-year-old Dilys Pope was in one of the classrooms. “We heard a noise, and then the room seemed to be flying around. The desks were falling over, and the children were shouting and screaming. We couldn’t see anything.”
Sobbing Rescuer. In minutes, most of the school and 17 surrounding homes were buried deep under the silent, black slime. From nearby pits, miners rushed to the scene and tore at the debris with their hands, picks and shovels. Mothers struggled up to their waists in the mud and sludge, calling out for their children. Mrs. Pauline Evans, a 27-year-old housewife, climbed through a classroom window with a nurse and found a dozen children screaming in panic. “In another classroom, we could hear the voice of a little girl,” she said. “But we could not get to her because there were other children trapped near by and if we moved anything, it would have collapsed on them. We could not rescue that little girl, who said her name was Katherine.” Another rescuer, choking with sobs, had to break the leg of one small boy to free him. One miner found the bodies of Teacher David Beynon and five students. “David was clutching the five little children in his arms,” he said, “as if to protect them.”
Now and then, amid the groan of earth-moving machines, police called for silence. Then during the eerie, deathly lull, everyone listened for the faint whimper of a trapped child.
At nightfall, Prime Minister Harold Wilson flew in, and walked grimly among the miners, whispering words of encouragement. By week’s end rescue crews had unearthed 130 bodies, most of them children, and police were predicting that the toll might go as high as 210â€”almost a full generation of the small, grief-stricken village.
Tags: buried deep, coal mining, coal tip, colliery, gigantic mass, goo, harold wilson, infants school, john evans, maintenance man, mental images, molten lava, pouring down, red brick, rescuers, september 11 2001, slag, slag heap, slurry, welsh coal