Fifty years on, survivor Jeff Edwards shares his nightmare memories of the Aberfan disaster which claimed 144 lives and shocked the world...
documentary eff Edwards can clearly recall the moment at which his childhood came to an abrupt and shocking end. It was on the morning of Friday 21 October 1966, and eight-yearold Jeff was in class at Pantglas Junior School in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil.
On that fateful day, 1.5million cubic tons of slurry from the colliery waste tip that cast a giant shadow above the village slid down the hillside and engulfed the school, a farm and 20 terraced houses.
One hundred and forty-four people were killed, 116 of them children.
‘It happened at 9.15am,’ says Jeff, 58, one of the survivors featured in this week’s moving BBC4 documentary Surviving Aberfan, made to mark this year’s 50th anniversary of the tragedy.
‘There was a rumbling noise that our teacher said was thunder. The next thing I remember is waking up
Jcovered in all this debris that had fallen down from the ceiling. There was lots of screaming and shouting.’
Jeff was the last child pulled alive from the wreckage. From his class of 34 children, 30 perished. ‘The only reason I survived while others didn’t was that I had a pocket of air to breathe,’ he explains. ‘There was a girl right next to me who didn’t survive
– her head was on my shoulder.
‘For years I had nightmares about that. I couldn’t get away because I was pinned down.’
What had started out as just another school day had turned into a tragedy that would traumatise the community for years to come.
‘We were looking forward to the October half-term, doing what normal kids do,’ Jeff recalls. ‘After 9.15am on that day we had to grow up very quickly. One minute we were happy-go-lucky kids, the next I had death on my shoulder. Our childhood ended on that day.
‘We could no longer play in the streets because it was frowned on by people who had lost children,’ he adds. ‘Even our own parents didn’t want us to play on the streets because they became very protective towards us. And all my friends had disappeared, so there was nobody to play with anyway.’
While the head injuries that Jeff sustained healed, the psychological scars stayed with him.
‘It was difficult to go back to school because of the fear the tip would come down again,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t concentrate, lacked interest, and got upset very easily. I couldn’t go back to school for a long time. I missed out on those formative years.’
One positive outcome of the tragedy for Jeff was that, as an adult, it inspired him to get involved in local politics – he’s been mayor of Aberfan and was awarded the MBE – helping his community.
On the site of the old school is a memorial garden dedicated to those who lost their lives.
‘I like going there,’ he says. ‘It’s tranquil and beautiful with the flowers and trees they’ve planted.
But I never go to the cemetery. It’s too emotional for me. When
I go past the graves, I don’t see the names, I see the people.’
is previewed on page 80, See also Tuesday BBC1,
10.45pm (SCOT, 11.45pm)
the aftermath of the deadly waste tip slide Jeff Edwards (inset as a child) recalls the day disaster struck Aberfan
There was a girl right next to me who didn’t survive – her head was on