Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Aberfan disaster on 21 October 1966, which cost the lives of 116 children and 28 adults. One of those who covered Aberfan and the aftermath was journalist John Summers, who grew up in a neighbouring valley in South Wales. His first novel Edge of Violence (Leslie Frewin, 1969) dealt with the story in – for legal reasons – slightly fictionalized form. The book was subsequently reprinted in paperback by the New English Library as The Disaster. This is the opening chapter.
A heavy sugary sunlight this morning. And it was one of those long, boring, silent October mornings, so quiet you know something is bound to happen.
In the middle of Fleet Street’s morning traffic, a girl student was cycling along, stocking-tops showing, and a two-seater sports-car coming down Fleet Street screamed rubber tyres and brakes as the driver faced up into her. On a big hoarding across the street a girl was smiling, winking one eye at you across the shoulder of a leather-coated man, the tips of her red-gloved fingers touching up behind his ear as her other hand fingered round the trigger of a Browning automatic shiny from wear: splashed words thrown across both of them DRESS TO KILL! Don’t be caught red-handed! Whether you’re dealing with a man, or a Mauser! Choose fine leather gloves in explosive colours!!
Under it somebody’d done in pencil, the letters three feet high, GOD IS DEAD, and underneath that somebody else must have scribbled God Isn’t Dead – He just doesn’t want to Get Involved.
I scribbled it in my notebook for my Sunday column piece. I liked it. It was just when I was coming out of El Vino’s with the proofs of ‘Swinging London’s New Young Meteors’, the thing I’d written for Jimmy Danziger for Prince magazine and that racked up two hundred and fifty guineas for this morning: and I’d tied up a colour supplement two-piece series as well at five hundred guineas a shot on ‘How to Succeed as a Writer Without Really Trying’.
I opened the door of the Ferrari where I’d parked it round the corner by the Law Courts and threw the proofs on the back seat for dwarfs. Only another sixteen payments and she was mine. How to succeed as a writer, without really trying …
I switched on the radio down by the gear stick as I turned on the ignition and the radio said:
‘…mountain of coal waste suddenly and without warning moved … children believed buried … The mining-village of Abertaf …’
It had fallen. It had fallen at last.
I hung on the moment, turning the keys of the car and then nothing, till I was heading fast and hard down on the accelerator in the middle of the traffic at Marble Arch, turning at the sign-post: South Wales, A40 …
I drove the Ferrari hard for Oxford.
At eleven-thirty it came through on the radio. They broke into ‘Val Doonican time’ or whatever it was.
The figure had dropped … sixteen children dead and the rest of the children had escaped.
Then another news item fast on top of it, with the announcer’s quicker voice saying the children in the Abertaf school buried by the coal waste tip avalanche had all been accounted for and were safe.
Two miles further on the radio said sixty not sixteen missing.
By the time I’d cleared Oxford and was heading the Ferrari down the A40 it came clear. ‘At least one hundred and fifty people missing … buried … alive …’
Buried alive by the Abertaf tip … ‘The tip fell at about nine o’clock this morning on a misty morning in the little Welsh valley of Abertaf Vale …’
I switched the car radio off till I switched it on again for the one o’clock news and it said: ‘…feared at least two hundred people and children may be buried – under millions of tons of the great tip of coal waste …’
Mountain Road To Abertaf Mountain – five hours’ hard driving and by the time I turned the car off Dowlais Top road and down into the valley and across the River Taff my first impression of Abertaf was the noise of the terrific roar of bulldozers, yellow caterpillar tracks worming their way through the streets and ruins of what had been the village and up the side of Abertaf mountain – there must have been already about three thousand rescue workers there and the whole shift from the Abertaf Vale colliery had come up as well, working like distant lines of ants on the side of the mountain; I could see up the whole line of mountain where the roaring coal waste had glaciered through the school and houses of Abertaf.
The Mont Blanc-shaped mighty Abertaf colliery tip must have broken across its back and fallen down across the whole village. It was like Vesuvius. What happened to Pompeii the Abertaf tip had done to Abertaf.
I didn’t remember getting out of the car but I was there with them. Taking my jacket off and leaving it on the bonnet of the Ferrari.
Chaos of bedding, clothes, smashed cars half-buried in the black avalanche. Noise. Sounds of lorries’ diesels revving; somewhere under the thirty-foot deep piles of slurry and broken brickwork a smashed car-horn started up, jammed against the twisted steering column, and continued blaring for the next half-hour till the battery ran out.
Bodies being carried past in blankets.
Whistles blowing now and again and all the caterpillar tractor-engines stopping firing one by one for a few moments’ silence, for rescuers to listen for anybody still alive but buried under here.
More than two hundred and fifty missing still.
Firemen were propping collapsing walls with shorings of timber.
There was a Roman Catholic priest dropped on his knees in the rain and the coal slurry muck between the legs of the hundreds digging around him; with his fingers locked together, he was singing out. ‘Dig,’ he said, ‘dig, dig your pick in deeper.’
‘If I do that I might be putting it through some poor bugger’s insides,’ shouted back a miner wearing only singlet and trousers and the safetyhelmet he’d been wearing when he and the hundreds of others on the shift had rushed up from the Abertaf colliery when the hooters had gone. Where the Abertaf school had been the tip had taken everything away with it; big trees with roots thick as telegraph poles were mixed with boulders, and what struck me again was what had always struck me and that was the tremendous oiled smell of coal and shale that has not seen the sun for a hundred centuries; the long lines of rescuers were digging in rain that was falling, lifting broken slats of wood over their heads in the nonstop snapping of news photographers’ flashguns.
The black slurry, like lava rinsed in water. In front of me the slurry was filled with a reddishness that was squeezing out from the jaws of one of the bulldozers that was backing coughing down from the ruins of where the Abertaf school had been. In the bulldozer mouth, steel blades high-piled with slurry and boulders, something showed. ‘Hey, hey, wait a minute!’ a short stocky rescue worker with coalstained muscular arms had his arms up above his head to hold back the something that was coming high in the raised bulldozer’s jaws, the bulldozer’s mouthful of something tightly gripped. I could see then what it was. ‘Hold it a minute,’ rescue men in miners’ safetyhelmets held up what was nearly falling out of the jaws of the bulldozer backing off from out of the slurry; it was half of a woman’s body, half of it taken down the middle and somebody was bringing a cardboard box, ‘We’ll have to put her insides in the cardboard box,’ and by that time I was digging in the kneeling lines of men, paddling with a shovel, shovelling the stuff behind me and somebody had passed me what I thought was a piece of coal slag. It passed hand to hand down the line where it had been unearthed from where the steam was issuing from buried houses and as it was given to me I suddenly realised the piece of coal slag had toes to it. A woman’s leg and thigh. Whistles shrilled. They’d stopped digging and where a wall had fallen and made an air-space they were blowing whistles for silence to listen because they thought they had heard children crying inside the buried school: for three minutes the rain hammered down in the silence up the whole three-quarter mile height of the great Abertaf tip as the bulldozer engines stopped one by one. After three minutes the whistles blew to dig on again. Where I was digging I came on a place where two walls had fallen and I put my hand inside and I could feel something: warm clothing, material, I pulled and the buttons gave and it came away in my hand, the top half of a child’s pyjamas and as I drew it out and was putting my arm back to feel for a body a great spludge of water, dirty black with slurry, spouted out all over me, filling the airspace and the inside of the hole and whatever child had been alive in there would have been smothered, drowned.
They were finding children’s bodies faster now: children’s bodies black as little Negro children before they were washed free of the slurry; and few of the bodies were in one piece, a foot gone here, a hand there. We found a man sitting upright in a hole formed by two collapsed walls, sitting there neatly dead; because he had one leg left, the other was ripped off at the buttock and his hands were clutching holding the stump of it and it had taken him probably twenty minutes to bleed to death: he was absolutely white, there wasn’t a drop of blood left in him. I heard somebody say, ‘Here it is, I’ve got the head,’ and a ball came out and was passed hand to hand down a line of rescue workers, the ball half caked with slurry, and the slurry coming away in the rescuer’s hands handing it to me revealing the blocked-up nostrils under the rescuer’s thumb. It was a woman’s head, but without hair. The scalp was livid red: every hair had been torn from her head as she must have been carried by the full force of the roaring avalanche down through Abertaf; then somebody found her hair, tangled but only slightly wetted, buried under the slurry. ‘Here, put it with the head’ ~ the head in my hands was the head of a young woman, about twenty-four or so, and her little tongue, a tiny little tongue, was thrusting out between her lips and her eyes were open staring up at me in the last scream as I held the ball of her head between my fingers before passing it to the men digging behind me. Rain was thundering down heavier. Realms of nightmare. Ambulance men behind us calling, ‘They want to know if you found the head that goes with that body you passed back ?’ and a miner digging here with me, and even in the cold chill of the night that was coming down over us he was still wearing only a singlet and trousers and he was sweating, his shoulders shining with it and runnels of sweat marks through the coal on his face. ‘The head?’ he was shouting, ‘we sent the head on the stretcher with the body!’ ‘Yes,’ said somebody else shouting, ‘it was wrapped in a curtain, I put it on top of the stretcher.’ The ambulance backed off, ‘Have any of you seen a woman’s head here? It was wrapped up in a length of green curtain –’ I looked in the far corner of an ambulance and there was the curtain material thrown down in a corner and I could feel the stony heavy bony ball of the head in it immediately. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ve got it,’ and I came back across to where the ambulance men were waiting and handed them the curtain, and an ambulance man opened it. ‘Oh, that’s good,’ he said, ‘I’m glad of that.’ Somebody was handing out mugs of tea and sandwiches and I found myself with a tin mug of tea in my hand with fingermarks, black, all over it and I had a corned beef sandwich in the other hand with mashed meat falling out from the thick bread.
My ‘author suit’, the shiny linen American suit – I had lost the jacket where I had left it on the bonnet of the Ferrari – the trousers of it clung muddily round my legs like sculptured black clay itself.
A BBC man was getting me to a BBC car, a big converted Zodiac with an aerial on the roof. Inside it, BBC engineers with taperecorders.
After introducing himself as:
‘Cynon Evans, Welsh BBC,’ the BBC man said: ‘I am sitting now in the stricken village of Abertaf …’ and as he said it I looked down and the BBG man’s suede shoes didn’t have a touch of coal muck slurry on them: Cynon Evans was going on with the thick choke in his voice, ‘… the Abertaf tip fell – suddenly and without warning – at just the time when the hundred and fifty schoolchildren of Abertaf were playing in the school yard and now most of them are feared to be buried under this …millions of tons of mountain, of coal waste and slime … rescuers have been digging here all day since this morning when it happened … so far forty bodies have been recovered, another two hundred are believed still missing …’
The BBC man introduced me as : ‘… Joe Parry … nationally-known writer but who was actually born and grew up in Abertaf itself … and when he heard this morning on his car radio in Fleet Street what had happened, he drove straight down here and has been digging with the rescuers without a break for four hours since…’
I said a few words into the microphone, sweaty in the closeness of the BBC car with the windows shut up to keep out the noise of the tractors and lorries.
As I came out of the BBC car, a BBC-TV film unit from Cardiff got me in front of the outside broadcast cameras and I was asked to say something and the TV news reporter said, ‘… is the well-known Welsh writer Joe Parry and he has been digging here helping in the rescue operations since arriving this morning …’ Before they had swung the camera on me the BBC-TV outside broadcast producer had said:
‘Better wipe that muck off your face, a minute, Joe … it looks like makeup.’ The glass eye stare of the TV camera gaped at me.
‘… and of course, Mr Parry, this is where you grew up in the valley, in Abertaf itself in fact,’ said the BBC man holding the television mike. ‘Yes,’ my face burned with tears, I had to put my hand to cover it.
I came away from the BBC cars and passed the bulldozers and lorries coming up through the smashed streets of Abertaf.
In the dark they had already brought in army searchlights to light the whole mountainside up. They were bringing squads of soldiers…
Building sandbag banks to block off the water that was still roaring down from the tip with a sound like drums.
Trudging down through the slicking coal slurry, it was like walking through mortar, walking down away from the school and the smashed houses and through the barbed wire they were setting up.
‘Where the hell d’you think you’re going?’
I looked up.
It was a military policeman. In a white, shiny riding mac he was pacing up and down and across the road and his white riding mac was unsullied by coal muck; he had his leather-stitched swagger stick stuck under his arm.
‘I said, what d’you think you’re doing?’ He stuck the swagger stick point first hard into my middle just below the breastbone where the scar of my peptic ulcer is and leaned his whole weight on it to stop me.
The stick sent a spurt of acid against the lining of my stomach.
I said, ‘Take that stick out of my middle or I’ll break it over your head.’
Out of the comer of my eye I saw a policeman coming over. A bobby in a blue mac running with rain, and I saw him taking his own truncheon out of his side pocket as well, and I thought, ‘Here we go, I’m going to have both of them onto me at the same time,’ but the bobby hit up the swagger stick and said:
‘Take that stick out of his middle – it’s all right, he’s one of the diggers.’
In a moment I saw the reason for the policeman and military police who were everywhere now – looters. Because coming out from between two smashed houses I saw a man carrying a transistor radio under his arm and I heard somebody say, ‘Here, you don’t belong in that house,’ and a rescueworker carrying a shovel brought the broad-based Welsh miner’s shovel down, swung it clang against the side of the man’s head. And as I staggered on down the road with my corned beef sandwich still in my hand I could hear them fighting behind me.
With the soldiers working in the searchlight beams, their officer, young, straight-haired with ginger pig-eyelashes, squatted comfortably, examining the work his men were doing; the neatly stacked sandbags. I realised suddenly what he was doing, he was playing at soldiers and I said as I passed him, ‘Why don’t you set up a bloody machinegun in it while you’re about it? For God’s sake, instead of pissing about here why don’t you send a few dozen of your men to help up where the school was?’ ‘How many men do you want?’ he said, surprisingly, back at me and then he said, ‘All right, sergeant, take a few men out and get up to the school and help them with the digging.’
I looked back over my shoulder at the droves of ant-size rescue-workers digging through the night in what was left of Abertaf lit up by the searchlights, and the soldiers carrying in more sandbags. The roaring of the lorries and bulldozers. The vast wafts of steam from the buried houses and school.
The cold cloud of night rain was closing in on us, coming down from the Abertaf tip.
And I looked up at the mountain and I could see the Ras Farm had gone.