At 9:15AM on the 21st of October 1966, life changed forever in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan. A mountain of coal waste collapsed, burying a junior school in the valley below. 144 people died in the Aberfan disaster, 116 of them were children.

Aberfan Disaster

The disaster in one small Welsh village captured the attention of journalists and photographers the world over. Chuck Rapaport, then aged 29, was one of them. He flew in from New York to photograph the incident for Life Magazine. He expected to be coming to a town without children. But, as Rapaport discovered, some children had survived.

Philip Thomas Disaster Victim Children Valley
Philip Thomas

Children like 10 year old Philip Thomas, sent on an errand that may have saved his life. He had been sent, with his friend Robert, down to the senior school to fetch Robert’s dinner-money from his sister, when they heard the loud rumbling. Hugh Watkins, a teacher at the senior school remembers that he thought a plane had crashed into the mountain-side. He recalls “I looked up and saw, coming down, this huge mass of slurry, boulders and trees, welling down as if the mountain had opened up and exploded”.

High above the village was where the mining company had chosen to dump the coal waste. This mound of waste had been growing for 50 years.

However, underground streams and several days of heavy rain had weakened the structure. This caused tip number 7 to collapse. The resulting landslip buried the children and grandchildren of the men who had dug it out.

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Children of the Valley

As news of the Aberfan disaster spread, families rushed to the scene, digging with their bare hands to try and save their children. Out of a class of 35 children, Philip Thomas was one of only two who escaped death. It was young survivors like him that Chuck Rapaport had come to photograph.

Chuck Rapaport didn’t get to meet the most seriously injured, because these children, like Philip Thomas, were in hospital for months. Thomas recounts “I lost three fingers from my right hand, I lost my spleen, had a fractured pelvis and numerous scars from my knees to my head. I had a skin graft on the left hand side of my face, my ear was off and had to be sewn back on”

Aberfan Disaster
Aberfan Disaster Aftermath

8 year old Gaynor Minett was also seriously injured in the disaster. Her only brother, Carl, and her older sister Marilyn both perished. It was hard to be a surviving child in Aberfan. For a long time after, Gaynor questioned why she had been allowed to live when her sister and brother died. She recalls that she often wished it had been her that died if it might have meant her siblings survival.

A Memorial to the Lost Children

A memorial now stands at the site. A garden that echoes the layout of Pantglas Junior School. Low stone walls mark the classrooms where so many children died. A child rescued at 11 o’clock that morning. Was the last of the lucky ones.

Aberfan was one of the world’s first televised disasters. Private grief was on public view. Tens of thousand of cards and gifts flooded in from around the world.

The combined forces of Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan and Cardiff police played a key role in controlling and coordinating the rescue effort and aftermath.

The Aberfan disaster led to the introduction of the Mines, Quarries and Tips Act of 1969. It was the intention of this Act to prevent disused quarries from becoming a danger to the public.

This is just one of many interesting documentaries that the author has felt compelled to include in this blog.

External Links

The Aberfan Disaster – Wikipedia Page

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