[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, in which 116 children and 28 adults were killed, is being remembered across Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. At 9.15 am on Friday 21 October 1966, some 150,000 cubic metres of water-saturated spoil heap broke free from the side of side of Mynydd Merthyr, the sandstone ridge on which it had been deposited, and moved at high speed towards the South Wales village of Aberfan, where it enveloped Pantglas School.
Local residents and civic authorities had complained for years about the National Coal Board’s (NCB) practice of depositing mining spoil on the side of the hill; and raised concerns that the natural springs under the spoil heaps made them unsafe. At the inquests into the death, when one child’s name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the child’s father said “No sir: buried alive by the National Coal Board.”
Last night (Thursday), on the eve of the anniversary, the first of several church services was held. The assistant bishop of Llandaff, David Wilbourne, preached a sermon which was led by the parish priest, the Revd Mark Prevett. The Ynysowen male voice choir led the singing.
In his sermon, Bishop David said that the Bishop of Llandaff at the time of the disaster – the futher Archbishop of Wales Glyn Simon – immediately blamed the NCB for negligence, leading to the chair of the board, Lord Robens, to threaten him with a defamation claim and to demand his resignation. The Bishop was later shown to be justified in his comments: the official inquiry slated the NCB for extreme negligence said that Lord Robens had made misleading statements.
Bishop Simon, who had himself lost a child in infancy, cleared his diary and visited every bereaved home to meet all the parents.
“Simon’s was a homely episcopacy in the spirit of St David who attended to the little things, the little ones, presenting them with Christ their true light, when all other lights fail,” Bishop David said. “Prompted by the Vicar of Aberfan, Glyn Simon also issued a rare archiepiscopal decree that when Aberfan’s church was eventually rebuilt it was to be a new double dedication: to Mary, Mother of Our Lord and All Holy Innocents.”
This morning (Friday), Wales observed a minute of silence in tribute to the dead of the disaster. This was observed in Aberfan on Bryntaf – a street close to the site of the disaster – with a special commemoration. A further service will take place tonight at the Church of St Mary and the Holy Innocents. The Methodist minister serving Aberfan at the time of the disaster, the Revd Irving Penberthy, will preach.
On Sunday, the bells of Llandaff Cathedral will be rung half-muffled before the 11 am and 3.30 pm services.
“This is a time for us to come together as a community, sharing grief which is still so sore, despite the passage of time, and giving thanks for the lives of every one of those who died in the disaster,” Bishop Wilbourne said. “We will remember that God suffers with us in our tragedies and it is His love for us as His cherished children that ultimately helps us through our pain.
“His deepest desire is that one day the darkness of our own Good Friday may be cheered by the light of Easter.”
The children killed in the disaster were aged between seven- and 10-years-old. Every street in Aberfan lost at least one child in the disaster. The dead were buried in a mass grave in a joint funeral service attended by 2,000 people. The site of the former Pantglas School is now a memorial garden. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, will visit Aberfan this afternoon to meet some of the survivors and their families.
One of the survivors, Gaynor Madgwick, lost her brother Carl and sister Marilyn in the disaster. She told the Guardian that the royalty and political leaders visiting for the 50th anniversary won’t be in Aberfan next year. “But we’ll still be here,” she said. “We were here for the 49th anniversary, and we’ll be here for the 51st. I’ll be coming here until the day I die.”