On 21st October 2016 it will be the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. I was 11 years old when it happened and I have never forgotten it. For many of us, the realisation that death happens is often when a member of the family dies or maybe a beloved pet passes away. For me, it was when I saw this disaster on the television.
For those who don’t know, this was the terrible day that a “slack heap” collapsed and buried a village school. I knew what slack was as it was what we added to our open coal fire to slow it down – basically small crumbs of coal that came in the bag with the large pieces but which couldn’t be sold on their own. So a slack heap was where the spoils from the coal mine were piled up – rock, shale and lots of coal dust. For convenience this particular heap at Aberfan was close to the village and over time a build up of water caused this huge pile of waste to become unstable until it suddenly started to slide downhill in an almost volcanic stream of cold, wet slurry. Lying in its path was the village school.
The slide moved at such a pace that nearby workers couldn’t have raised the alarm even if their phone cable hadn’t been stolen earlier. 40,000 cubic feet of debris travelled at a depth of 12 metres and engulfed the Pantglas Junior School and part of the adjoining senior school. It was the last day of half term: an hour earlier or a day later, the children wouldn’t have been there.
For me, this hit me on all fronts. My father had come from a welsh mining family and had gone down the mines at 14 – if he had stayed in Wales this could have been us. 116 children and 28 adults died: children just sitting in their classrooms like I did every day. And coal, that innocuous benign substance had done this. Not a bomb or an earthquake: coal which we used every day. It made the whole thing so close to me. The “bungling ineptitude” (The Davies Enquiry) that resulted in this disaster meant nothing to me as I was too young to understand culpability and blame but rather it brought home to me that death comes stalking at any time. My innocence about death was gone.
Can you remember when you first became aware of death? How did you feel about it? I’d love to read your experiences.