Each week at school, during tutor time we have a word of the week. This week the word is “landslide”. Yesterday was the Year 7 assembly, so we only came to the word of the week today. Turning on the PowerPoint presentation, I asked someone to read the word and the definition.
The definition was the fall of rocks or earth from a mountain or cliff. “There can be other forms of landslides,” I said, “once when I was six, a great big tip of rubble dug up from a coal mine in Wales slipped onto a primary school.”
”Did anyone die, sir?” asked one of the students.
”They did,” I said, “one hundred and sixteen primary school children died under that rubble. I know because my Dad was one of the rescue workers.”
I paused, not knowing what to say next.
I pressed the button for the next slide in the presentation. I had not looked at it previously, it told the story of Aberfan. It told the story because the word of the week was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster.
One of the most profound memories from my childhood comes from those days after my sixth birthday. My father is standing in the farmyard talking to my grandfather, the only words I remember spoken by my father are “they were exhausted”. My father is wearing overalls and black Wellington boots, which are covered in black dust.
During the years that followed, the background to that scene slowly unfolded. My father had been a member of the Civil Defence Corps and had gone to help with the digging at Aberfan, where on Friday, 21st October 1966, the day before the half-term holiday, a coal slag heap had slipped, engulfing a farm, several houses, and Pantglas Primary School. 144 people had died; 116 of them schoolchildren.
It was years later that I heard the story of the Revd Kenneth Hayes, the minister of Zion Baptist church in Aberfan.
Hayes’ son, Dyfrig, had been one of the children buried in the school. Twelve hours after Dyfrig’s body had been found, on the Saturday night, Hayes stood up at Zion Baptist on Sunday, 23rd October to lead worship. The church was packed, the congregation was comprised of those too old or too young to help with the digging and journalists from around the world. Kenneth Hayes led the service and announced the singing of “Safe in the arms of Jesus” at the end, before sitting in his chair and weeping.
Fifty-three years later, as we read the account of what happened and watched black and white television interviews with those there, tears still well up in the eyes.