Over the last few weeks I have intensely followed the media coverage of the 50th anniversary of Aberfan. I have been so terribly moved by what I have learnt that I would very much like it to be the subject of this blog.   I will not attempt to find a tenuous link to Dylan Thomas (I hope you don’t mind) but will use my words to try and make sense of the incomprehensible, and, for that matter, the downright indefensible.   I have read, watched and listened – it’s all I’ve been able to concentrate on – and have concluded that truth is much more shocking than fiction.

By the mid 1960s, the three mounds of discarded rubbish from Merthyr Vale Colliery towered above the village of Aberfan and were part of the everyday landscape, as was the loud clatter and commotion that could often be heard from the nearby pit. In fact, many of the local men worked there. So imposing were these black mountains of waste in the south Wales valleys, that during bitterly cold winters, when they were entirely covered in thick snow, you could be forgiven for wondering if you were in the middle of the Swiss Alps.

On a misty and damp October morning, the unthinkable happened. Following a week of persistent and heavy rain, tip number seven collapsed and roared downhill towards the village below. Within seconds it had wiped out a whole generation.

Every time I close my eyes a scene from hell is etched in my mind. A tiny village school submerged beneath thick sludge and cloaked in years of built up coal muck. I see the local man running towards the school thinking, “Thank goodness there are no children inside.” But, of course, we now know, that there were. The black faced and filthy men desperately digging with their bare hands through the rubble, praying that they will find their children below before it’s too late. Women huddled together and frozen with fear. Just an hour earlier it had been the usual morning school rush – it seemed a lifetime ago now. Oh how they’ll wish they remembered to kiss their child goodbye. The high-pitched whistles being used to silence the crowds to allow rescuers to listen out for signs of life. Tiny bodies squashed up against classroom walls and teachers cradling terrified children in their arms. All were covered in black blankets and taken to the chapel across the road to be identified by anxious relatives. Streets filled with houses with drawn curtains. The stamp of death was everywhere. Six days later, a mass funeral with hundreds of coffins in a line that became row upon row of white graves. Through this blog I want to join the sea of voices and shout as loud as I can, “ We must never forget Aberfan.”

I thought I knew everything I needed to know about October 21st 1966 – a terrible tragedy that no one could have predicted. How wrong was I? You see, I assumed I had inside knowledge, as my own dad had been there as a coal miner, helping with the rescue effort. Yet, I’m now aware that he told me very little, probably, because he’s spent years trying to forget about what he saw and really, when you think about it, there are no words. What could he have said?

The disaster fed into my childhood in another way too. I was staying in Cilfynydd in February 1990 with my Aunt Megan. It was downslope from a colliery spoil heap and after days of prolonged rain it was declared unsafe and the area underneath was put on red alert. The catastrophic event less than twenty miles up the road was still ever present in the memories of the community, and an ominous atmosphere hung over the village. Instructions about what to do if a warning alarm (reminiscent of an air raid siren) was transmitted only added to the dread and sense of foreboding.

Fortunately, Cilfynydd did not have to experience the ghastly scenes that have become part and parcel of stories associated with Wales’s darkest day. But amongst the horror and debris come some of the finest examples of human kindness and unity. The super-human strength found to lift a boy from under a fallen wall, the dinner-lady whose quick thinking saved four young lives… but not her own. The Salvation Army that provided soup and bread (or slices of donated wedding cake) for the workers so they could focus on the solemn task at hand.

But in the aftermath of Aberfan, there were some of the worst instances of inhumane and revolting behaviour. Cruel coal eating monsters reared the ugly heads. The injustice the affected families experienced over four long decades is absolutely disgusting. “Buried alive by the National Coal Board” were the words of one bereaved father because it quickly became apparent that neglectful choices and decisions were made, which led to, and caused, the disaster. The National Coal Board had rejected advice and deliberately declined to follow well-considered procedures and policies. Furthermore, they would not accept any responsibility or apologise for what happened, which generated an unnecessary long and distressing tribunal. They even charged rent on the grim caravans (so cold that the curtains would freeze against the fragile windows) that were provided for the homeless families and gave a measly amount of money as compensation – £500 per dead child.

Despite the tribunal finding that the National Coal Board was accountable and naming and blaming nine members of staff, not one of them had disciplinary procedures brought against them. In actual fact, the chair of the NCB, Lord Robbins was later promoted and given the role of leading a major inquiry into health, safety and welfare at work, even though under his watch, 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives.

To top things off, the UK government refused to help and support the Aberfan community in removing the deadly tips that still loomed threateningly above their homes. £150,000 (equivalent to the number of tons that fell on the school) from the charitable fund raised on behalf of the victims was used to take the tips away. The trustees of the fund had no choice. How could parents send their children back to school or allow them to play outside on wet days with it still there? Only now could the families begin to move on.

The people of Aberfan have fought and battled with dignity. The money was eventually paid back – two million pounds to cover lost interest. Yet I can’t help feeling that nothing will ever be enough to repay them for the unfairness of what they have been through. After all, nothing will bring their children back and replace the huge gap and the recurrent thoughts of, “What could have been…”

I’m going to steal the words of John Humphries to finish. “If Aberfan stands for anything today, apart from unimaginable grief, it stands as a reminder of this; authority must always be challenged.”

Hannah Ellis – 31st October 2016.

Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant.  You can learn more about her by visiting the website – http://www.hannahellisconsultancy.com