Fifty years after one of the darkest days in Britain’s peacetime history, Prince Charles honored those who died in an infamous mining disaster on Friday.
Aberfan, a village in South Wales, lost a generation of 116 children ages 7-10 in 1966 when their school was engulfed in some 150,000 tons of mud and slurry —loosened by heavy rain and springs beneath — from the local coal waste dump.
The tragedy took place on the last day of school before the half-term break, with the youngsters excitedly looking forward to the time off. But minutes after they had been called into class, the Pantglas School was engulfed in a wall of waste flooding down the mountain. Half of the school’s children lost their lives, as well as five of their teachers. (144 people perished in all.)
In the hours after the flood, hundreds of people arrived from nearby mines and valley villages to remove sacks of slurry in a desperate effort to save lives.
Today, the Prince of Wales arrived first at the local cemetery, where he laid a wreath. The wreath’s message was written in Welsh: “Er bythol gof a chyda’r cydymdeimlad dwysaf.” (“In continuing memory and deepest sympathy.”)
“Anyone who is old enough can remember where they were when they heard the appalling news about the Aberfan disaster,” Charles said in a speech. “I was at school in Scotland, having just returned from a period at school in Australia and I can never forget the feeling of utter despair as I heard of the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen your community. . . Aberfan showed the world the darkest sorrow, but also the most shining selflessness: a spirit which endured not just for the time of crisis, but for a lifetime.”
Charles also relayed a message from his mother, Queen Elizabeth. “As you come together as a community today to mark fifty years since the dreadful events of Friday 21st October 1966, I want you to know that you are in my own and my family’s thoughts, as well as the thoughts of the nation,” the Queen wrote. “We will all be thinking about the 144 people who died – most of them children between the ages of 7 and 10 – and the hundreds more who have lived with the shock and grief of that day, summed up by one poet who said simply, ‘All the elements of tragedy are here.’ ”
During his visit, Charles stopped at the village’s memorial garden, which stands on the site of Pantglas School. The peaceful spot — serene on a sunny, crisp autumn day — is partly laid out along the lines of some of the destroyed classrooms.
There, after touring it, he put the final soil in place around a sweet gum tree — chosen for its colorful foliage this time of year — just yards from a tree that local schoolchildren planted recently and one his Elizabeth planted in 1997.
On the way into the memorial, Charles stopped to talk to Mackenzie Robertson, 10, who held up a scrapbook showing old newspaper images — including one of his grandmother Susan being carried out alive.
Mackenzie said his “nan” couldn’t be there, but had gone to the memorial service earlier. “Give my best to your grandmother,” Charles told him.
“It’s really nice that he’s come to visit to pay his respects to anybody who died in the tragedy,” Mackenzie said.
Next to him, Dennis Osbourne told Charles that the last time he was here was 50 years ago, when he had come to the village to help. “The atmosphere was quiet, just quiet working, people working away,” said Osbourne. “But how can you move a mountain? It was mud everywhere like a river.”
Jeff Edwards, who was the last child to come out of the school alive, reflected on the tragedy: “It was a national event that touched the heart of the nation from the Sovereign down to the common man in the street.”
He sustained stomach and head injuries in the disaster, but the psychological scars lasted longer.
“A lot of people have not been able to talk about it all, and there’s a group who are talking publicly for the very first time,” said Edwards. “It’s important for people’s recovery. I would say for anyone who’s involved in a major trauma to talk about it.”
Gaynor Madgewick, 58, lost her brother Carl, 8, and sister Marylyn, 10. Madgewick was 8 at the time and sustained broken legs and tissue scarring.
Her late father Cliff Mynott told her that her siblings had gone to heaven. “After that, we never spoke about it again,” she recalled.
“The grief was palpable and visible then,” says Madgewick, who wrote a book, Aberfan: A Story of Survival, Love and Community. “There are psychological scars that are still prevalent today. But there have been many tears of happiness as well today, as we know so many people have come from all walks of life and communities to support us on this terrible day.
“The Queen made a promise to us and she has kept that commitment coming four times. It touched her personally as a mother, a grandmother and queen.”
The disaster is with her daily. “We live by the cemetery and we are there every week. This is a special day but we will always be there, whatever day or week leaving flowers. For us, nothing changes.”
Gerald Kirwaun, 58, was sitting next to his best friend at the school on that fateful day. Only Kirwaun came out alive.
He said of meeting Charles, “When [the Queen] came I was a young child and met her and it made a lasting impression on me. I was emotional when he spoke to me. He asked me if I was okay and if I had been badly injured. He’s a nice guy — it’s thoughtful that he has come.”
He hasn’t spoken about the day much — until recently. “I am a grandfather to three beautiful children. One grandchild is is two months younger than I was at the time. We never spoke about it to my four brothers, my mother or my father or the other survivors even though we were all in the same school. People just didn’t do it.
“We kept our feelings secret. but it’s nice that we are talking about it, that it will be remembered forever. Children have got to be educated on it. It will never happen again, but they should know what happened and how it happened.”