October 21st will be the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster when a massive coal waste tip collapsed, crushing the Pantglas Junior School in the tiny mining village, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Journalist Alix Palmer, at the time just 27 years old and on her first major assignment for the Daily Express, wrote a letter to her mother describing what remains as one of the most dreadful nightmares of her 40-year career.
You probably noticed that I was in Aberfan this weekend. But you will have no possible idea of what hell it was. No newspaper could ever paint a picture terrible enough.
The first news reached the office at 11a.m., just that 50 children were trapped. I caught the midday train and met many other reporters from various newspapers also on it. We had lunch which was a good thing because it was a long time before we could eat again or even feel hungry.
At Cardiff, the Express had hired cars waiting but we were told the only way to get through was by train. The roads were closed. Even then we assumed they were closed because the “landslide” had descended on them. We still didn’t know what had really happened.
We left the train at Merthyr Vale, the village before Aberfan, about two miles away, and walked. The roads were just like they were during the war, with many people in filthy clothes all plodding in the same direction. These were the miners coming from the pits to join in the digging. In the village itself, women lined the streets and lorries and ambulances blocked every inch of the way. I think then we realised it was more serious than had first appeared on the news tapes.
But it wasn’t until we walked up the hill and turned the corner which gave us a view of what had once been a school, that we understood. And we stopped. Only a small portion was left but again, it wasn’t until I asked a policeman how many children had been in the school and he replied “about 200” that the full horror hit us. Looking at that mess, that terrible black slag by this time sweating and sticky like tar, you knew it was impossible that anyone buried under it could possibly live. And of course, the last live person had been pulled out at 11.30 that morning, two hours after it happened and five hours before we arrived.
Looking down on that terrible mess of a school from behind on the mountain side with a blanket of slag on it, nothing of the inside of the building could be seen. Wherever you looked, women stood waiting. You could tell which were the mothers; they weren’t crying, just huddling together. The fathers straight from the pit were digging. No-one had yet really given up hope, although logic told them it was useless.
Every now and again the Organiser of the operation would yell through a loud hailer for quiet. That was the most terrible moment of all. Someone had seen an arm or a leg and everyone longed for the sound of a child crying. The gigantic bulldozer, operating in such confined spaces and with such deafening noise, would stop. The noise of spade against spade and the murmur of orders would cease, the women would draw a little nearer and everyone would hope.
Then a body would be brought out gently, cleared quickly of a casing of slag which clung to the skin and clothing. A doctor would push his way through and everyone waited. Then the doctor would wrap the little body gently in a blanket and it would be carried into the building of corrugated iron which served as a mortuary.
This went on for hours. When the light went, television people fixed up spotlights and apart from the frightening and eerie shadows, it seemed like day again. All through the night we worked, talking to people or trying to, because how can you talk reasonably to mothers who have just identified a dead child?
Apart from the hell of being there, it was hell trying to get anything back to the office. Only one public phone in the village was working We made the pub our base where the landlord and his staff were marvellous. Everywhere it was freezing cold. The streets by late that night were swimming in black mud. The male journalists had gone in suits and the few females wore ordinary clothes and high heeled shoes.
At eight o’clock, I went to the school in the next village where the parents were meeting the Chief Constable. They were asked to fill in forms, listing the children who had been at school that day which was the only way of checking because class registers were still buried. And as the mothers sat down to write the names of their children, the tears came.
Back at the site, everyone was praying that the threatened rain would not come. Just down the road, people waited patiently outside the little chapel named The Miners’ Chapel until they were called to identify the dead children brought one by one from the mortuary.
All through the night it was the same. We were nearly dropping. And there was a terrible moment when all the copy to our respective papers had been put over and we had time to think about the situation as a whole.
Reporters and photographers from my paper were being put up at a house about eight miles away by a man called John Kendall who used to work for us. He and his wife were marvellous, with journalists going back all hours of the day and night to snatch a couple of hours sleep or something to eat. I didn’t go to the house until 7am Saturday morning then it was back to the village at midday to do some stuff for the Sunday Express. By this time, we had to walk the five miles from Merthyr Tydfil because the roads were closed to traffic.
The rain held off until teatime then started drizzling. By 7pm it was pelting down. One of the houses shattered by the avalanche was still burning. No-one had yet been found alive or dead from any of the ruined houses. By this time, the slag had had time to corrode the skin of the children still buried and many brought out burned could only been identified by the clothing or things in their pockets. One little boy, whose father, a teacher at the school who had saved some of his son’s classmates, was identified by a slip of paper with his name on deep inside his wallet.
That night was terrifying. I hadn’t realised it was possible to be so wet and so cold. Fortunately we had all managed to buy or borrow boots and back at the site quickly realised that there were people in a worse state than us. For below, in the pit, men who had started digging at 9.30 the previous morning, were still digging, with shirts off and bodies sweating despite the cold.
I saw such dreadful things, Mummy. They brought out the Deputy Headmaster, still clutching five children, their bones so hardened that they first had to break his arms to get the children away then their arms to get them apart. And the mothers of two of them watched it happen. I saw limbs brought out which bore no resemblance to human arm or leg, flesh burned away by this dreadful stuff, small children already beginning to decompose because there had been air-locks beneath the slag.
By Saturday, the anger had risen and if Lord Robens, Chairman of the National Board, had dared to set foot in that village, he would have been lynched. Sunday was dreadful too because the full realisation of what had happened had begun to hit home.
The church services were not beautiful. They were terrible . But the bravery of those people was incredible. I came home on Monday night having learned a great deal about life and death and finding it difficult to believe in anything at all. Even now, I am trying hard not to feel, because once you feel, it will be too hard to bear.