The mothers bound by grief: 50 years on from Aberfan, the haunting stories of the survivors and how the mothers of the 116 children who were engulfed by a coal tip found solace by meeting every week for half a century
- 50 year anniversary approaching of Aberfan disaster that killed 144 people
- 116 children and 28 adults died when big coal waste tip slid down mountain
- Parents had waved their children off to school - unaware of tragedy to hit
- Now many of them have spoken about the horrific day and their losses
Marilyn Brown collapsed when they told her that her ten-year-old daughter Janette would never come home from school. She vividly recalls sliding to the floor, begging to be allowed to see her child but being told it was for the best that she didn't.
'I cried and I cried and I cried,' she tells me. 'And I don't think I've cried since, no, not even at the funeral. I can't cry. I don't know why. It's not as if it isn't there. It is. I can feel it, a big lump in my chest.
'I sometimes think if I had been able to cry, it would have got rid of that lump.'
That makes half a century of being unable to cry. It will be 50 years ago next week that Janette died, just one of the tiny victims of the Aberfan disaster, where a massive coal waste tip slid down the mountainside in the Welsh mining village, engulfing the primary school and killing 116 children and 28 adults.
Tragedy: It will be 50 years ago next week since the Aberfan disaster, where a massive coal waste tip slid down the mountain in the Welsh mining village, killing 116 pupils and 28 adults
Rescue: Jeff Edwards, who was eight at the time, was the last to be rescued from the school
Devastating: In minutes, the village had lost half of its children, including many of those in this image. Now, some of the survivors and parents of those who lost children have spoken
The last time Marilyn saw her daughter was when she stood on the doorstep, waving her off. 'She hadn't wanted to go to school that day,' she remembers. 'It was a holiday coming up and she just didn't want to go.
'My husband Bernard got quite cross with her. 'Come on, Janette, you have to go.' I remember watching her go up the street, and waving, then coming back inside thinking: 'Thank goodness for that, I can have my tea and toast now.' But I'd hardly sat down at the table to eat it when it happened.'
'It' was one of the most shocking disasters in British history, and one which still seems too monstrous to fathom.
The children of Aberfan had grown up in the shadow of the towering No 7 tip — a man-made mountain made up of a quarter of a million tonnes of coal waste and rocks dumped by the National Coal Board
They used to play in the stream which ran under the giant tip, catching tadpoles and sliding down the lower slopes, unaware that their playground would one day become their tomb.
At 9.15am on October 21, 1966, however, tip No 7, swollen by heavy rain, started to slide. With an almighty roar, which locals at first put down to a blast of thunder or a low-flying plane, it crashed down the mountainside, engulfing everything in its path, including Pantglas Primary School, where lessons had just begun.
In minutes, the village had lost half of its children.
It was a catastrophe that the whole country shared, being perhaps the first national disaster to be played out in front of TV cameras. Everyone over the age of 60 will shudder at the memory of those indelible images as desperate parents clawed through the mud with their bare hands.
Haunted by memories: Marilyn Brown collapsed to the floor in floods of tears when they told her that her ten-year-old daughter Janette would never come home from Pantglas school
Victim: Marilyn's daughter Janette (pictured) was aged 10 when she was killed in the tragedy
Now, the cameras have returned for two documentaries, one for the BBC and one for ITV, and younger generations will perhaps learn of Aberfan for the first time.
What's immediately clear as the survivors tell their stories — some who have never spoken about it before — is how the passing of time does nothing to dilute the horror.
In the BBC programme, which is one of the most heart-breaking pieces of television you are ever likely to watch, former miner and part-time fireman Allan Lewis provides a haunting account of reaching four little girls, all still at their desks, and their teacher, who was still standing in front of them. All were dead.
A child's pigtails immediately reminded him of his own daughter, aged four at the time. 'I was sobbing,' he remembers. 'The tears were running down my cheeks. The overman who was behind me said: 'Do you want to be relieved?' I took a deep breath then: 'No, no, I'll carry on.' '
Then there is the testimony of the children themselves — the ones who, by some miracle, came out of the school alive.
Karen Thomas is only here to tell the story because of one woman. The Pantglas dinner lady Nansi Williams was just one of the heroes of that day.
Flashbacks: Jeff Edwards (pictured in recent years) said he is still haunted by the disaster
When the school started to shudder she realised something terrible was happening, and told the children closest to her (who had been bringing her their classes' dinner money) to get on the ground. She then flung herself on top of them.
Fifty years on, Karen tells of those terrified children pinned beneath Mrs Williams, unaware that she was dead. Karen still calls her 'Mrs Williams' today, rather than Nansi, that childhood respect intact.
'The five of us were shouting. We were calling out her name and the boys were saying 'just pull her hair if you can reach her' to try and wake her up. We just thought she was sleeping or unconscious. It didn't enter my head that she was dead on top of us.'
Some haven't spoken publicly at all since the disaster, which makes the testimonies of men such as Len Haggett, a retired fireman, all the more moving.
In the BBC programme, Len is reunited with Dave Thomas, one of the children he did manage to pull out alive, albeit with an ear hanging off and with three fingers missing.
Len's abiding feeling at that moment? 'Elation, without a shadow of a doubt', but overall, he has had to live with searing regret that he did not manage to save more.
Perhaps the most poignant account comes from Jeff Edwards, the last child to be brought out of Pantglas Primary School alive.
There is a famous picture of him being carried from the building, his shock of white hair still vivid through the blackness.
'I still can't see a hospital blanket without it all coming back,' he tells me. 'I'll be watching Casualty or Holby City and they will wrap someone up, and it sets me off.'
The memories flood back, sometimes without any reason. 'Sometimes, out of nowhere, I'll be able to smell the smell,' he says. 'Anyone who has lived in a mining community will know that smell, but I'd get it in the middle of London. I mean, it wasn't there. It was in my head, but it was still so real.'
Sad: Residents of the Welsh mining village attend a mass funeral for the victims of the tragedy
The massive coal waste tip slid down the mountainside in the Welsh mining village, engulfing the primary school and killing 116 children and 28 adults. Pictured: Volunteers on the site
Jeff had just picked a new library book (The Adventures Of Tintin, he remembers) and walked back to his desk, when the tragedy started. His teacher, Michael Davies, had started to chalk up on the board, when there was a 'rumbling, rumbling, rumbling', as if a jet plane was going overhead.
'The teacher said 'it's only thunder, it will go soon', then the next thing I remember was waking up and hearing shouts and screams.'
Jeff was trapped, pinned under his desk and alive only because he happened to be in an air pocket. Those around him, including Mr Davies, had died instantly.
Just by his shoulder, he realised, with mounting panic, was the little girl who sat beside him in class. Her head was 'right next to my face, really. I could see she was dead. There was no doubt about that.'
For two hours, Jeff was pinned down like this, and for 50 years he has tried to escape the images he saw that day. 'I can't get away from her,' he says, of that girl whose face, increasingly puffy in death, haunts his dreams.
'I still see her sometimes. I can't stop it all coming back.'
In so many ways, Jeff has been a shining example of human endurance. Although he moved away from Aberfan as a young man, he returned to the area after a stint in London and went on to become a mayor of nearby Merthyr, pouring all his efforts into securing a future for the youth of the town.
But he has also suffered disturbing flashbacks, and still has bouts of depression. 'When they come on me, I just have to go to bed and let it pass,' he says. Others too, talk of the burden of 'survivors' guilt'. Bernard Thomas was ten on the day, and although he escaped 'with just cuts and bruises', he tells me that he, like Jeff, 'lost my childhood that day'.
The Aberfan he grew up in was a dismal one. 'All our friends were gone, you see. I lost my cousins, my friends. No one talked about it at the time, but you couldn't escape it either.'
Families and residents of Aberfan attend a mass funeral for the victims following the tragedy
Coffins arriving at the cemetery during the funeral of 82 victims - 81 of them children - of the Aberfan coal tip disaster. The victims died when a mass of coal slurry flooded the local school
Bernard never married, and has had a difficult life since. He struggled with alcohol issues. 'I do wonder if it would have been different, had it not happened. Would I have got married? I don't know.'
The ITV programme focuses on the women of Aberfan and their vital role in keeping the community alive.
The group Aberfan Young Wives was set up just weeks after so many of the mothers involved had buried their children. Those children, Marilyn Brown tells me, had been due to take part in a community show. The rehearsals had taken part in Marilyn's living room.
'Oh those are some of the loveliest memories I have, of Janette and her friends all singing and dancing around the room. They were going to sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow, I remember.
'After it happened, no one thought any more about the show but one day the Reverend Pembleton came to me and said: 'Marilyn, why don't you put on a show, for the children?' I was taken aback. I couldn't think of who would want to come, or whether any of the other parents would support the idea.
'But when we put it to them, they jumped at the idea. And the children who did take part, well, they just loved it.' The community rallied, and came out in droves to support the surviving children on that stage.
The Aberfan disaster was a catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil-tip that engulfed a school
The Aberfan disaster, 50 years ago, was one of the worst industrial disasters Britain has known
It was the start of Aberfan's long recovery. Every week following it, the mothers (of both the living and the dead children) would meet. They called themselves the Aberfan Young Wives. And this group are, astonishingly, still meeting today. 'We took a decision to lose the 'Young' from our title though,' laughs Marilyn.
'In the early days no one knew what to do. No one talked about the children. If you met another family in the street you'd just nod and go on.
'This gave us a place where we could just talk about our children if we wanted, or not talk about them if we wanted, but where people understood.
'We'd hold events, go on trips, have fun, actually. People were afraid to have fun, but you have to, don't you? Life has to go on.'
She's an extraordinary woman, who has rebuilt her own life through sheer determination. She says she had little choice. 'I had another child, you see. I had Robert. He came out of that school, and I had to go on for him.'
It was Robert, six at the time, she screamed for on that day, when the news was broken that Janette had died. 'I kept saying 'I want Robert, I want Robert' and when they brought him to me I just held onto him for dear life.'
We talk a little of whether the women of Aberfan coped better than the men. 'Oh Bernard cried, yes, lots. He took it very badly. You only had to say her name and he would break down.
'Maybe that's why I didn't. I felt I had to stay strong. I don't know. I really don't know why it is.'
Volunteers are pictured working to safeguard the coal tip in the 1960s to prevent further slides
The scene inside the Pantglas Junior School after it was wrecked when the coal tip collapsed
The moving mountainside of coal sludge after the disaster at Aberfan on October 21, 1966
Marilyn never did get to see her daughter's body and that is still something that pains her. 'I wanted to and my father, who had gone with Bernard to identify her, said no, I shouldn't. He said she only had a tiny mark on her forehead, and that she was sleeping, but you do still wonder, don't you? But I must not go there.'
She went on to have two more daughters, is now a proud grandmother and asks me to stress that she has had 'despite everything, a very happy life'.
'You never get over it, and you never forget. I mean, she would be 60 now and you think: 'What sort of person would she be? What would she have done?' But, my goodness, you are so grateful for all that you do have.'
There are pictures of Janette all over the house. She has a favourite one ('the last one she had done at school') on the wall by her bed.
'I touch it every night when I say goodnight to her. And whenever I hear children singing and dancing, I think of her. I always will.'