The Rescue

The rescue

I was eighteen and at home in Wales when an urgent plea for help was broadcast on the radio. That very morning a mountain of coal dust, slag and slurry had collapsed and engulfed a primary school in the tiny community of Aberfan.All able-bodied Welshmen were urged to make their way to the village. Clutching spades, my father, brothers and myself unhesitatingly set off too, all of us eager to shoulder our clear responsibility to help our neighbours.

The arc lights blazed over the area which had, so recently, echoed to the sounds of children playing. Burly miners wept openly as they worked, digging through the night. A hush would descend on the whole site as the cry went out that yet another dead child had been found. Altogether the dead bodies of 116 children and 28 adults were unearthed and the memory of that awful tragedy still lives on in the minds of loved ones and friends. Those families continue to need our comfort and prayer. I shall never forget the unbearable poignancy of a little lifeless hand I saw protruding from the landslide.
Lyndon Bowring 

We are so used to having coal tipped near the school and this noise sounded just like coal being tipped only much more noise than usual; it was a heavy sound. … I was going towards the school, and I suddenly realised the sound was coming nearer all the time, and the feeling it was the tip came to my mind straight away; so I ran back to the house; my little girl was in bed, so I got her and the wife outside and I went back to the school.
… The north side of the school was completely down, and the tip had come right down the road, Moy Road. I went straight into the boiler house of the junior school and raked out the fire. … I came out of the boiler house and saw in the classroom next to the boiler house some children there and they were unable to get out, so I tried to smash the window to get the children out, but there was not enough space to get them out that way. The teacher managed to open the door somehow. … I went in through the door and the children came out past me, out to the yard. Then I went round to the front of the school where Mrs. Williams’ class was. I saw she was in there and she could not breathe – she shouted she could not breathe. So I went in through the window, the window was that height from the yard, you know. I climbed in through the window. There was some children trapped in the masonry; I got those children out, passed them out through the window. After that I went outside again and saw a little girl on top of the tank above Miss Jennings’ classroom. She was right up and wanted to come down. How she got there I do not know. But I got up on the tank and got her down. Then I saw Mrs. Williams, a teacher, and went to the assembly hall and started digging them out. After that I do not know, I cannot remember anything; all I know is my two boys were buried in the rubble.
School caretaker

Then the next thing I remember was seeing a mass of men coming up from the colliery still with their lamp lights on. That was really moving because they were black, they’d just come off the shift and they’d been sent straight up. And they had their lights on. And after that they just took over from us.
Teacher, Pantglas Junior School

I went down to work, changed, went down the pit and I hadn’t been down the pit ten minutes when they sent for everybody to come up, that the tip had slide. Well we came up, I couldn’t fathom it out; I’d never seen anything like it. The front of the school was there but there was no back. We went there and we dug and dug all day.
Miner and bereaved parent

We had to break the front windows and then climb in. … We had no tools – we used our bare hands and anything we could find. But there was nothing anyone could do, between the slurry and the water coming down. That was the worst, not being able to do anything. There’s nothing as bad as that.
Bereaved parent

The women were already there, like stone they were, clawing at the filth – it was like a black river – some had no skin left on their hands. Miners are a tough breed, we don’t show our feelings, but some of the lads broke down.
Miner

I have been asked to inform that there has been a landslide at Pantglas. The tip has come down on the school.
Emergency call received by Merthyr Tydfil police, 9.25 a.m., 21 October 1966

We didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea of the scale of the thing. It was a great shock. There was absolute chaos and somehow I had to organise that chaos.
Assistant Chief Constable

I left by car for the scene of the incident. … and I arrived at Moy Road … at about 10 o’clock. That was near the infants’ school. With the co-operation of the chief inspector I set up an incident post at a police car on the colliery side of the incident to maintain communications with police headquarters by radio telephone. … I then made a reconnaissance of the whole area above the school, and I managed to get round to the streets to the other side, the north side of the incident at the Mackintosh hotel. This reconnaissance revealed that not only was the Pantglas junior school buried under approximately 20 to 30 ft. of debris, but a large number of houses in Moy Road and Pantglas had been demolished and submerged under a pile of debris and liquid mud.

… at 10.30 a large quantity of water was still pouring into the disaster area, and I was informed that it was coming from the mountain springs and two large water mains which had been fractured when the disused canal and disused railway embankment had broken.
Chief Constable of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil

They [The vehicle and rescue workers] had to retire a little to avoid being swamped by the new rush of water and slurry. … It certainly hindered the rescuers from the end that I was working and had that water not come quite a number of properties would have been saved.
Chief Inspector in Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Police

As I was in the shop there was dirty black water coming down the hill, and as I was waiting my turn to be served I shouted out that we were going to be flooded. As I dashed back to the house with my little baby Alan, who was just one, in my arms, I fell over the milk bottles.

With that my friend Glenys from a few doors away arrived with her daughter Sian who was dirty. She said Sian had come home from class all covered in dirt, and she had thrust her into my arms before running back up to the school. I asked Sian what had happened and she said that the school had fallen down.

I didn’t know what to do, so I went round to Glenys’ house where the door was wide open and a stream of dirty water was just rushing through.

I ran up to the top then and when I saw the school had fallen down, my legs just turned to jelly. I couldn’t walk. I just stood there dazed as all the time water flooded my home. Glenys came past and said she hadn’t seen [my daughter].
Aberfan resident

As I was being carried out I realised I had lost my jumper. It was a mustard-coloured one that my mother had knitted. There were five children in our family and you couldn’t afford to lose a jumper, so I tried to go back and look for it because I thought I would get into trouble. I was taken straight to hospital and my parents did not come to see me until evening. They must have spent the whole day not knowing where I was, not knowing if I was alive or dead. But we never talked about it.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

I could hear men’s voices but I didn’t know what they were doing or where they were. I heard someone crying and then this voice was asking me if I could see daylight and I could put my finger through it and then I was dug out.
I was passed through a chain of men, out through a window and into the yard and handed to the policeman, who carried me to the side of a wall where he placed me on the ground. … I looked back at the school and I just couldn’t believe what had happened. It was completely flat.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

At that time I’d bought felt pens and they were rather a new thing. They cost 2 and 6 at the time. And I had these three felt pens, a red one, a blue one and a mauve one. And I was more interested in getting these felt pens out. And the fire officer said to me, ‘Forget those bloody felt pens and let’s get you out.
Pupil, Pantglas Junior School

Men, women and children were tearing away the debris in an effort to reach the trapped children. As the men shovelled debris from spade to spade, children’s books appeared. An odd cap was seen. A broken doll.

Mothers gathered around the school steps, some weeping, some silent, Some shaking their heads in disbelief. …

The slurry had piled up 25 feet against the school, smashing its way through the building, filling the classrooms.

Teams of 50 men and boys worked in long rows from the school building, handing buckets of slurry up the mountainside from the classrooms.

On each side of the school mechanical shovels and bulldozers gouged the debris out. An endless line of lorries carried it away. … At regular intervals everything would come to a halt – the roar of heavy machinery, the shouts, the scraping of shovels. Not a murmur would be heard among the thousand workers. Time stood still. And rescuers listened tensely for the slightest sound from the wreckage – for a cry, a moan, a movement – anything which would give hope to the mothers and fathers.
First Journalist on the scene

Nobody told me what had happened at the time. I asked somebody next to me, it must have been a couple of hours later, he said “What is this stuff?”; I did not know myself what it was, and I was under the impression it was an explosion of gas. I did not think the tip had slipped; I did not realise anything about the tip. It must have been a good two hours when somebody said “it’s the tip that has slipped.” I did not know; I was just knocked for six; I did not realise that it was that.
Bereaved parent

It’s like a blitz – as though a bomb had been dropped on the whole school.

We can only work in small groups, and gas is leaking. Progress is slow, as we have to prop up the beams and wall as we go in.

The chances of survival are negligible, but I’m hope I’m wrong.
Rescue worker

You only have to mention what you want it and it comes. We’ve had no trouble at all to get anything.
Civil Defence worker

The really incredible thing was that you couldn’t walk five yards without a member of the WVRS or the Salvation Army or the Red Cross putting a cup of soup, a cup of coffee or a cup of chocolate into your hand.
Detective Constable

We cut up cotton sheets for bandages, and gave blankets and pillows for the children as they were brought out on stretchers. Rescuers came in for everything, and we gave all we could. All we thought of was that children’s lives were at stake. Everything lost its value in comparison with those children.
Aberfan Resident

No one was brought out alive after 11 o’clock.
Chief Constable of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil

… the roads leading to the incident both from Merthyr Vale and from Troedyrhiw were blocked with vehicles with rescue workers and helpers, both official and voluntary, and similarly, the A.470 road between Pentrebach and the Travellers Rest was becoming congested and in a number of places it had become completely blocked. … The mortuary was set up in the early stages at Bethania Chapel, and I appointed an officer of the regional crime squad to take over the identification and handling of the bodies, and by 11.30 at night on the first day 67 bodies had been brought in and identification was then in progress.
Chief Constable of the County Borough of Merthyr Tydfil

I reached the tragic village of Aberfan on Saturday morning. The initial panic and hysteria had died and now there was a well-ordered rescue operation underway. But it was still a grim sight. There was a greyness everywhere. Faces from the tiredness and anguish, houses and roads from the oozing slurry of the tips.

The grey-black mass seemed to have penetrated everywhere and all around were evacuated houses.
Merthyr Express 

There was an estimated 2,000 volunteers now [Saturday] at the scene. Many of them had been working for 24 hours.
First journalist on the scene 

Heavy rain started at 2.30 p.m. Saturday causing immense anxiety and fear that the huge tip would slide again and engulf the rescuers. … By this time about 2,500 workers were on the scene. Extra police were called in because inexperienced rescuers would not leave the scene.
Merthyr Express

… no less than 144 men, women and children lost their lives. 116 of the victims were children, most of them between the ages of 7 and 10 …
Report of the Tribunal appointed to inquire into the Disaster at Aberfan

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