On This Day: 116 schoolchildren killed after slag heap collapses in Aberfan disaster

Julian Gavaghan

OCTOBER 21, 1966: One hundred and sixteen children were killed after a coal slagheap collapsed and buried their school in Aberfan on the eve of the half-term break on this day in 1966.

Five teachers and 23 other adults also died when a 40ft-deep mass of slurry cascaded down a mountain and smashed into the South Wales pit village at 9.15am.

The fast-moving landslide, which had been triggered by heavy rain, demolished a farm and 20 terraced houses as well as Pantglas Junior School.

A British Pathé newsreel filmed the frantic rescue effort as 4,000 miners from five local collieries around nearby Merthyr Tydfil rushed into the village.

Mothers and fathers also dug with their bare hands into the night, but no survivors were discovered after 11am on that fateful day and only 25 schoolchildren lived.

The footage shows the despairing faces of some of the men as they stop and listen in vain to see if there are any cries for help while wrapped corpses are stretchered away.

George Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales, summed up the tragedy that had fallen on the tiny village when he said: “A generation of children has been wiped out.”

The fact that lives could have been spared if the collapse had happened just minutes earlier or a few hours later made the Aberfan disaster even more heartbreaking.

Pupils, who were excited by half-term holidays, had just returned to their classrooms from singing All Things Bright and Beautiful in assembly when disaster struck.

They could not see the landslide because of heavy fog - but they could hear the almighty roar of 80,000 tons of coal mining waste flowing like a river towards them.

“It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead,” Gaynor Minett, who was then an eight years old and lost two siblings, later recalled in her book.

“You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats.

“I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window.

[On This Day: Knockshinnoch mine collapse leaves 129 men trapped]

“I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.”

In her class of 37 pupils, only two survived. Philip Thomas was the other one.

He lost an ear, three fingers and his spleen - and he was so haunted by the horror that day that he could only face publicly speaking about the disaster 40 years later.

[On This Day: Blast kills 266 coal miners and rescuers at Welsh pit]

“I don't know how long I was buried for,” he told the Daily Mirror in 2006.

“It was some time.

“I could hear voices, I was shouting for me Mam. I could hear someone saying, ‘There's someone here!’ and digging me out.

“A big piece of wall was lying across me.
“They pulled me out and the nurses were washing me down. Wherever they washed me, I bled. The doctors said stop washing because the wounds were opening up.”

Some teachers tried in vain to save lives by shepherding the children under desks, while others simply attempted to calm the pupils down amid the terror.

Deputy head David Benyon, 47, was found dead with his arms around five youngsters who had also been suffocated by the slurry.

An inquest later found that the state-owned National Coal Board was wholly to blame for the disaster, which would haunt villagers for decades to come.

They lived in fear of being buried alive and a social worker noted that many survivors refused to take their depression sedatives when in rained as they were afraid to sleep.

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