Aberfan revisited – after 50 years

I’m shocked and appalled to discover that it’s been five months since the last post – but I have the best of excuses. I’ve been writing. This one crept up on me and then it took over… but it has been a unique privilege and one I wouldn’t have missed.

50 years ago a coal waste tip fell on a school in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, killing 116 children.
50 years ago a coal waste tip fell on a school in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, killing 116 children.

This is Aberfan. In October 1966 thousands of tonnes of coal waste and rubble fell down a mountainside onto a primary school in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan. 144 people were killed – 116 of them children. Most of them died in the school. It was one of the worst peacetime disasters in Britain in living memory. As a 15 year-old I remember seeing those terrible black and white TV pictures live from the scene and those images have stayed with me.

But what about those directly involved? The stories of the handful of children pulled from the rubble, the rescue teams and the parents who lost children are harrowing and heart-breaking enough, but how they survived the years that followed is instructive and often inspirational.

When a book to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster was first mooted – again in collaboration with a Testimony Films BBC commission – I was enthusiastic but it seemed a long-shot. Potential interviewees for the documentary were initially reluctant to come forward, and for entirely understandable reasons. Retrieving painful memories of a tragic time – and for the cameras – is a big ask. The project stalled and at one point seemed doomed. Only painstaking work by the production team and vital mediation by an influential community leader broke the deadlock. Suddenly the TV documentary – and the book – were back on.

Just one logistical challenge: to meet the anniversary date 27 long audio interviews had to be transcribed and turned into a 50+k book in a matter of two months.  Needless to say, it is done. The story of how it happened and how it will eventually get published will appear in due course elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say as I write that the manuscript is delivered, photos have been captioned and the cover designed.

Sweat and logistics aside, I’ve been privileged to live in a world of Welsh voices telling their stories – both sad and uplifting – for the past 6 weeks. I have never met these people yet I feel I know them. If I’m lucky, I might yet get to meet some of them. In the meantime I hope – with my co-authors Steve and Bevan – to have done them and their experiences justice. I know Steve’s documentary has. Now the book needs to do the same.

Surviving Aberfan: the People’s Story  published by Grosvenor House. Surviving Aberfan BBC One in Wales, BBC Four in the rest of the UK. Tx tba.

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