Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies experienced in my home area of South Wales: the Aberfan disaster which saw the death of 144 people, 116 of them children. I was nine years old at the time – the same age of many of the children that were buried when thousands of tonnes of waste coal slid down the mountainside onto their school. It’s an event seared into my memory. The small community of Aberfan was just a few miles across the mountains from my school which was also in a mining town. What happened at Aberfan could easily have happened in my community.
Watching the news coverage of the commemorative events today was an emotional experience. Archive film shows the desperate efforts of rescuers to dig through the black slurry in the hope of finding someone alive. Among the many images from those days, this one has always stuck in my mind. The girl wrapped in the arms of a policeman was one of the lucky ones. She was found alive. Most of her classmates didn’t.
An inquiry followed. To this day, although the blame for the disaster was laid firmly at the door of the people managing the waste site, (the National Coal Board) no employee or board member has ever been demoted, dismissed, or prosecuted.
A memorial was set up. By the time it closed, nearly 90,000 contributions from all over the world had been received, totalling more than £1.6million. But instead of all that going to the bereaved and distraught families, it was used to make the remainder of the tip safe. Unsurprisingly, the community felt betrayed by the justice system and the political system. During my early days as a journalist I met some of those parents. I was struck then, and again today seeing some of them interviewed on TV, by how dignified they were in relieving those memories and of the betrayal that ensued.
It seems a fitting day to begin reading a book that is based on the events of fifty years ago: Black River by Louise Walsh. It follows Harry, a journalist for the South Wales Echo journalist, who tries to protect the village of Aberfan from press intrusion in the run up to the first anniversary of the 1966 disaster.
If you want to find out more about this tragedy, the BBC Wales site is a good source. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources