Aberfan school survivors give minute-by-minute account of the disaster

‘I was pinching his hand because I wanted it to move’: Aberfan survivor who was buried in a classroom next to a dead classmate shares her minute-by-minute account in podcast re-examining the tragedy that killed 144

  • Survivors of the Aberfan disaster share their stories in a new BBC podcast
  • Gerald Kirwan, Gaynor Madgwick and Jeff Edwards were among those rescued from the rubble of Pantglas Junior School when coal waste tip collapsed in 1966
  • Jeff tells how he was haunted for years by the face of a dead classmate
  • Gaynor lost her two siblings in the tragedy and was saved by a radiator 

Survivors of the Aberfan disaster give a minute-by-minute account of their experiences in a new BBC podcast re-examining the 1966 tragedy.  

Gerald Kirwan, Gaynor Madgwick and Jeff Edwards were among those rescued from the rubble of Pantglas Junior School after it was demolished when a massive coal waste tip crashed down the mountainside of the Welsh mining village, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Gaynor, who lost her younger brother Carl and older sister Marylyn in the tragedy, told BBC Sounds podcast Aberfan: Tip Number 7 how she held the hand of a dead classmate, willing it to move. 

Gerald Kirwan, Gaynor Madgwick and Jeff Edwards were among those rescued from the rubble of Pantglas Junior School after it was demolished when a massive coal waste tip crashed down the mountainside of the Welsh mining village, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Pictured, Gaynor (fourth from right, middle row), as a schoolgirl

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. But disaster struck when it collapsed. Pictured, in the wake of the disaster

Gaynor, who lost her younger brother Carl and older sister Marylyn in the tragedy, told BBC Sounds podcast Aberfan: Tip Number 7 how she held the hand of a dead classmate, willing it to move. Pictured, Gaynor with Prince Charles, Jeff Edwards (left) and Gerald Kirwan (centre)

Elsewhere Jeff, the last child to be pulled from the rubble alive, lay alongside a little girl who had died next to him. The image of her face haunted him for years after the tragedy.  

‘As time went on, her face became really puffy, and her eyes started to sink into her head,’ he said. ‘That remains in my mind over time. That was going to cause problems for many years to come.’

Jeff was trapped, pinned under his desk and alive only because he happened to be in an air pocket. 

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.

Jeff, the last child to be pulled from the rubble alive, lay alongside a little girl who had died next to him. The image of her face haunted him for years after the tragedy

Jeff Edwards, pictured as an adult, joins fellow survivors in recounting their experiences

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.  

Now, the BBC is re-examining the circumstances leading up to the disaster, and its fallout, in a new podcast series. 

Gaynor described the first moment the children realised something was wrong.   

‘Within seconds, this noise appeared from nowhere. Thunder. It was the most horrific noise, thunder,’ she said. ‘Like explosions. Rumbling. But it got louder, and louder and louder. And it literally froze people in their seats. 

‘I just remember turning my head and seeing this black mass and then I tried to get up to run for the door. Then it was black out, it was complete black out.

‘I never remember the slurry hitting me. I never remember the pain or discomfort. The only pain was when I woke up and I was literally catapulted to the back of the classroom, more or less into the corner of the classroom.’

Gaynor woke up on the other side of the room, on top of her classmate, Gerald. 

‘Gaynor was on top of me screaming, “I broke my legs, I broke my legs”. I didn’t really know what had happened, I thought there had been an earthquake,’ he said. 

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. Pictured, the aftermath of the tragedy 

‘Everyone was screaming and crying. We were just in limbo, thinking “what’s happened? What’s happened?’

The little boy who usually sat next to him hadn’t come into school that day so another friend asked to sit next to him instead. 

‘My little friend was still next to me,’ he recalled. ‘I spoke to him, “are you okay?” He didn’t speak to me. There was a little bit of frothy blood coming from his nose, down the side of his mouth. I was asking him if he was okay, and there was no reaction.’

They had been just inches apart, yet one had survived and the other had not.   

Gaynor continued: ‘I just remember just looking around, desks, chairs, mud, slurry, which was high up in the classroom. 

‘I just lay there, I just lay there, I wasn’t screaming, I was in shock. I couldn’t see my legs because this huge radiator had come off the wall and landed on my lap. Looking back now I think it saved me from suffocating.’ 

After the disaster: The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Aberfan following the disaster on October 29, 1966

Nearby there was a little boy who was badly injured, with blood running down his face. A second looked as though he was sleeping.

‘But as a child, you immediately know, that child is dead. Death, when you’re in that situation, even as a child, you know what death is. That child is dead.’

Gaynor, who had blood trickling down her head, recalled reaching out to touch a hand of a child lying nearby. The child had been in the next door classroom, the same as her brother, Carl, but had been partially forced through the wall by the pressure.

‘For some reason, I was just holding on pinching this hand because I wanted this hand to move,’ she said.

‘When I look back now, and when I heard, that my brother had died, I always hold onto the hope that it could have been my brother’s arm. It gives me comfort.’ 

Aberfan: Tip Number 7 is available on BBC Sounds 

What was the Aberfan disaster?

On October 21, 1966, Wales and the rest of the UK was brought to its knees when a massive coal waste tip crashed down the mountainside of the mining village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

With an almighty roar the black avalanche engulfed everything in its path, including Pantglas Junior School, where lessons had just begun. 

Minutes after the natural disaster at around 9.15am that day, the village had lost half of its children.

Desperate parents rushed to the scene and clawed at the mud with their bare hands, clinging to the hope that the sons and daughters they waved off just hours earlier might still be alive.

Ultimately five teachers and 109 children from the school were declared dead.

Pictured: The scene that sums up the agony of Aberfan when in 1966 116 children and 28 adults died as a result of a spoil tip slide 

The disaster was the result of one of seven spoil tips, which sat on the slopes above the village, collapsing.

The one that fell was established in 1958 and 111ft (34m) high.

The structure went against the National Coal Board (NCB)’s rules, as it was partly built on ground with water springs underneath.

As a result of three weeks of heavy rain, the tip became saturated and around 140,000 cubic yards (110,00m cubed) slipped down the side of the hill.

An official enquiry into the tragedy was chaired by Lord Justice Edmund Davies and eventually blamed owners NCB for what happened.

With an almighty roar the black avalanche engulfed everything in its path, including Pantglas Junior School, (pictured) where lessons had just begun

NCB chairman Lord Robens was criticised for giving misleading information about whether he knew whether there were water springs on the hillside.

But no charges were brought against the NCB or its employees.

The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day and raised £1.75million.

It took a bitter battle on behalf of local residents to get the other tips on the hillside removed.

The clearing was paid for by the Welsh government and the memorial fund.

Several people who survived the disaster suffered long-term health problems, with many left with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The disaster was the result of one of seven spoil tips, which sat on the slopes above the village, collapsing

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