Recovery

I tried to rescue people but I realised it could be dangerous just digging, not knowing what you were doing and I was getting in the way of people so I immediately switched over to pastoral work … The end of chapter 8 of Romans is a great summary of faith – What can separate us from the love of God – It’s a passage I always use when there’s a personal tragedy or disaster and that’s a message we always try to emphasise – I am certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death nor life, neither angels or other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future.
Bereaved Baptist minister, speaking in 1996

My work afterwards was more like that of a pastor. People had to face not only grief but bitterness, anger and even guilt. The first real thing that happened were the terrible nightmares people suffered, reliving the event time and time again. That went on for months. There was a terrible worry and pressure on people while the tip was still there, and every time there was a row over what was to be done about the tip my surgery would be full the next day. The stress and anxiety triggered off by what to do would affect people’s health.

It was predicted at the time that a lot of people might suffer from heart attacks brought on by the stress and grief, but that didn’t happen. Other experts predicted that there would be a number of suicides, but that didn’t happen either. These people hadn’t allowed for the resilience of the families involved. It was psychological problems that hit worst.

One thing that did happen within a short time afterwards was that the birth rate went up. Also many people were drinking a lot more and for some time after I had to deal with people who had serious drink problems, and for people who already had health problems, those problems increased.

From the time of the disaster for about the following six years I dealt with people who suffered breakdowns. There was no set pattern or any time when it could be expected to happen. It happened at different times for different people.

After the disaster I warned the community would have to come to accept its guilt. This guilt came out in many ways. There were the so-called guilty men who were blamed for what happened; they suffered themselves and were the victims of a hate campaign. But it wasn’t only them. Women who had sent their children who hadn’t want to go to school that day suffered terrible feelings of guilt. … Grief and guilt came in many different ways. There was a strange bitterness between families who lost children and those who hadn’t; people just could not help it.
Aberfan doctor

I kept asking myself why I hadn’t died and I blamed myself for allowing my brother and sister to die.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

I’ve got to say this again, if the papers and the press and the television were to leave us alone in the very beginning I think we could have settled down a lot quicker than what we did.
Bereaved father

… we were a community that were not used to being exposed on television or in papers. We are a community that wears our hearts on our sleeves. We’re quite open and we were only doing in the time after the disaster, as far as I’m concerned, what we’ve always done for years, thrashing out and the press exploded it. The other thing I always felt was that many of the facts that they reported were, and if they kept the facts, were fairly accurate. But it did remind of a scientist who has got a theory and then forces the facts to prove it. But what I wanted them to do was to take the facts and then decide what it told them. And the result was that they were coming in, and I remember more than one interviewing me wanting me to give certain answers,
Bereaved father

We weren’t prepared for it. We weren’t geared up for what was happening. Like the people from the press. They came in. We hadn’t seen any of this, ever, we didn’t know, it’s a different world to us. And they came from all over the place … They were round with their notebooks and their pads and asking all these questions, ‘How are you getting over it?’ You can’t ask me that now, never mind 30 years ago.
Bereaved parent, speaking in 1996

Fragments of the school itself still lie embedded in the rubbish – chunks of green-painted classroom wall…. Even more poignant relics lie in a corner of the buried playground piled haphazardly against a wall – some miniature desks and chairs, evocative as a dead child’s clothes, infant-sized, still showing the shape of their bodies. Among the rubble there also lie crumpled song-books, sodden and smeared with slime, the words of some bed-time song still visible on the pages surrounded by drawings of sleeping elves.

Across the road from the school, and facing up the mountain, stands a row of abandoned houses. This must once have been a trim little working-class terrace, staidly Victorian but especially Welsh, with lace-curtained windows, potted plants in the hall, and a piano in every parlour – until the wave of slag broke against it, smashed the doors and windows, and squeezed through the rooms like toothpaste.
Something has been done to clear them, but not very much. They stand like broken and blackened teeth. Doors sag, windows gape, revealing the devastation within – a crushed piano, some half-smothered furniture. You can step in from the street and walk round the forsaken rooms which still emit an aura of suffocation and panic – floors scattered with letters, coat-hangers on the stairs, a jar of pickles on the kitchen table. The sense of catastrophe and desertion, resembling the choked ruins of Pompeii, hangs in the air like volcanic dust.

….Prettily dressed and beribboned, riding expensive pedal-cars and bicycles, they [surviving children] are an elite, the aristocrats of survival, their lives nervously guarded and also coveted by those who mourn. By luck, chance, and by no choice of their own, they are part of the unhealed scar-tissue of Aberfan.
Laurie Lee, writer, on Aberfan one year on

Of course, we could have lost the boy too. He was on his way up Moy Road when he saw the houses falling towards him. He ran off home; and I couldn’t get a word out of him for months. He had to go to the psychiatrist…. Just wouldn’t talk about it, and wouldn’t mention his sister either. And the two of ‘em worshipped each other. They was always together; slept in the same room, holding hands…. He used to hide when we went to the grave….

Then one night – about four months later it was – we was round at our brother’s place. The boy went outside to the lavatory and I heard him call Dad! Ay, what is it, boy? I said. Come out here! he said. Sure, I said, what’s the matter? It was a beautiful frosty night. He said, Look at that star up there – that’s our Sandie, Dad. Sure, I said, that’s our little Sandie.

The boy’s all right now, and I’m going to see he’s all right…. And I’ll make damn sure he never goes down the pit. He’s not going to grow up daft like me.
Bereaved father talking to Laurie Lee in the pub, 1967

We were a generation that lost out. We lost out on our education and on our futures. I can’t think of any of us who ever did really well and most of just stayed and grew up in the village. We haven’t gone far at all.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

In Mount Pleasant school, which was a similar school, I remember vividly the first day going in, I took the remains of the upper part of the school, going into the classroom and sitting down there and outside was a railway line coming from the colliery and a diesel rumbled past, very very slowly, and I can see the looks on the children’s faces and mine. But it turned out alright but the actual shock of getting back to school was enormous and eventually everything went off alright and the children returned to normality.
Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

There was none of the discipline we used to have … We didn’t go out to play for a long time because those who’d lost their own children couldn’t bear to see us. We all knew what they were feeling and we felt guilty about being alive.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

As children we never got any sympathy. We were always told we were lucky to be alive. I suppose everybody in the village was so badly affected that nobody had the time to give us any sympathy. At school, though, the teachers treated us differently. It was as if they could not bring themselves to be strict with us. We lost a lot of schooling after the disaster anyway, and most of us never really made it up.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

What happened in Aberfan that day was the dark little secret when we were young and it still is. We knew we must not speak out. We have been quiet for the sake of the other people, those who lost children and those who did not want to hear about what happened, especially from the mouths of their own children. … What’s more, the survivors have never spoken to each other about it. Most of us live in the same small village and have grown up together, yet we all kept everything locked away inside ourselves. Here I am, a grown man, tough ex-miner and all that, yet since that day I don’t like the dark. Down the pit was all right as long as I was in company. I made sure I was never alone down there. … When we were young there was almost nobody left. We wandered streets like lost souls.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

In those days talking of your emotions was an embarrassment. As a child you felt ashamed to tell someone what you were feeling, even if you were crying. You didn’t want them to know you were crying. I only cried when I’d gone to bed in the evenings. If my mother heard me she would come in to see me, But I couldn’t talk to her about how I felt – and in the morning I would feel embarrassed. In my family we never discussed what had happened. Nothing was said. Just tears and very quiet. It’s the same round here today – people don’t want you to see they’re upset. I’ve never seen my dad to cry, never. When I went to bed I would speak to God. He was the only one I could speak to at the time. You don’t get an answer back but you could feel there’s somebody there. And that’s a comfort. … My Dad was very bitter for years. It was his only son, you see. My mother still won’t talk about that time. She doesn’t want to know. She’s blanked it out. It was the only way she could cope. We always went to church and she turned atheist for a while, which was bad because it meant she had no comfort anywhere. But she started to believe again and I think it has given her back her strength.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

We couldn’t talk about the loss for some time. Our boy was only seven. It threw our family life completely off-balance. [My wife] was breaking down all the time. What can you say? You feel so helpless. You sit there and you can’t do a thing.
Bereaved father

It gives you a respect for living. You’re thankful just to be here and all my friends seem to be very placid, I never argue with people. We seem to be different, for I never discuss the disaster with friends – I think you do tend to wipe it out.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

Today, when a disaster happens, you bring in people who are trained counsellors to help the victims’ families cope. But the counselling in Aberfan then was done by the community itself. That true Welshness, the sense of belonging and togetherness, came to the fore then.
Detective Constable

By every statistic, patients seen, prescriptions written, deaths, I can prove that this is a village of excessive sickness. And the cause is obvious. … Psychiatrists came and wrote “Aberfan needs no help”. Now they come to study what grief did to us. Nowhere else has grief been so concentrated. Lockerbie, Zeebrugge, King’s Cross – everywhere they used the lessons this place taught them.
Aberfan Doctor

For many years after the disaster if I was sitting in an enclosed room and a jet aeroplane would approach I would absolutely quake and shiver until it had gone and actually feel the nerves running through my body. I think it also affected my driving as well. I was very aware of the environment and dangers in the environment. But gradually over the years it sort of disappeared and now I’m all right I can rationalise a jet aeroplane.
Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

As far as we’re concerned now, we’ve still got two boys. We’re only separated for a time. One day we’re going to meet. The parting and the loneliness and being without him is terrible, but it’s not for ever.
Bereaved Baptist minister, speaking in 1996

***

Rev Kenneth Hayes of the Baptist Chapel lost a son in the disaster. He had a small congregation that morning, less than twenty including four children. There were reporters present complete with cameras. Mr Hayes wept openly in the pulpit and the service included the hymn:

Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast
There, by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
Hark ! ‘tis the voice of angels,
Borne in a song to me.
Over the fields of glory,
Over the jasper sea.