Survivor: Pat in her kitchen in Aberfan
Survivor: Pat in her kitchen in Aberfan

On October 21 1966 at 9.15am, several houses and the Pantglas Junior School were engulfed by a mass of slurry that slipped down the hillside overlooking the small Welsh mining village of Aberfan. 150 tons of coal waste, undermined by mountain streams, claimed the lives of 116 children and 28 adults.

So much is known. Marc Evans’s documentary Surviving Aberfan (Thursday BBC4 9pm) chronicles the whole day and talks to survivors from the children, their parents and the school staff, some of whom have never before spoken publicly of the tragedy.

What strikes one is the length of time the catastrophe took to sink in. Crowds waited in the street even after houses had been demolished by the landslide and half the school was crushed and submerged, still waiting for survivors to be brought out, unwilling to believe the worst until the end of the day saw bodies on stretchers carried to a makeshift mortuary in the chapel and the dreaded request came for parents to identify a body.

Half a century has worn their grief to stoicism — though a day never passes without remembering. One of the little girls saved by the school dinner lady throwing herself on top of them as the building collapsed still places flowers on her grave. The village women, initially reticent, avoiding speaking to one another for fear of hurting others, realised that sociability was a relief, not merely talking but forming a club, a cohesive community where they could cry and laugh “and no offence felt”.

The men have been more awkward. One elderly man says he has always wanted to know who pulled him out. When others shyly identify themselves, he falteringly says “thank you very much” and hesitatingly shakes a hand. Barriers take a long time to break down in a situation with no precedents.

The message that recurs is that life goes on, even for the bereaved and the mentally and physically scarred: one man roars with laughter as he recalls his shock of losing his fingers as a small boy. The site of the school is a lovingly tended garden. The National Coal Board, found responsible, paid £500 compensation per child. There was no prosecution. The colliery closed in 1989.

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