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'Buried alive by the National Coal Board'.

The Aberfan disaster, which claimed the lives of 144 people, including 116 children, was the worst tragedy in Welsh post-war history and took place 40 years ago this year. Jack Harris was one of the rescuers. In this harrowing account, he recalls its terrible reality, and the bitter aftermath

WHEN a whistle sounded, everyone froze. I can hear it still. It meant that another body had been scratched from the black, soaking slime.

Experienced miners were at the crucial areas where the children were buried. Nobody was pulled out alive, even two hours after the mountain had moved. But we didn't know that then.

The whistle blew intermittently throughout the day and night. A long, single plaintive blast like a football referee's at the end of a game. That's what whistles are for, surely - to start or end a game, not to herald the dead body of yet another child.

Not that the bodies were visible to us - at least not later, not after the blankets had appeared. They were used to cover the victims who were then brought out and down in a rescuer's arms. There was no need for stretchers for most of the kids were only six, seven or eight and only weighed a few stone. Nothing in the hands of a solid miner: nothing except the most precious, yet broken cargo he would ever handle.

'The women were already there, like stone they were clawing at the filth. It was like a black river. Some had no skin left on their hands, said one miner rescuer.

Black is a sinister colour. It represents night, death, the void, the colour we know we're left with. It was this black that took 116 young lives. Some people there knew its power, its force. They worked in it and with it, washed it off their hands, face and bodies every day. The women washed and dusted it away every day from their clothes and houses. And every day it returned.

This black had been stacked, planned, lovingly piled by the people who traded in it and who mistook it for wealth. But this was a black that killed. Inert, inorganic - carbon in one of its many forms. One of its most insidious.

'My abiding memory of that day is blackness and dark. I was buried by this horrible slurry and I am afraid of the dark to this day,' said one child survivor.

Once, another colour appeared. It was a pale beige on a trench coat worn by one girl, so wholly inappropriate. Her inability to neutralise her meaningless grin still could not begin to suggest the action she was about to indulge in.

She took some of that hideous slurry that had choked life from so many and daubed herself with it. First on the pleats of the coat below her waist: then around her abdomen and chest and finally her face and hair. This savagely unmannered creature then posed for her grimy little cameraman who was trailing her.

The volunteers, in our naivety and rawness, sought each others' expressions, looking for any sign of acceptability. But no precedent existed for this among any human action that anybody had ever witnessed.

'I was helping to dig the children out when I heard a photographer tell a kiddie to cry for her dead friends, so that he could get a good picture. That taught me silence,' said one mother.

Buckets - there must have been two to three thousand of them. No two the same, apparently. Where did they come from?

They became cardinal in moving the black. Back and forth, back and fore they went, down one side, full and back up the other side of the chain, empty.

Then, when arms were about to drop, somebody would notice and give the order to switch and our column would be swinging the empty buckets back to the source.

We were now moving the mountain, not fate and rain. We were removing its blanket from the children, eating into its des- tructive force. All too late, of course.

'I remember being thrown across the classroom when the stuff hit us. Then I must have blacked out. I woke to the sound of rescuers breaking a window, then I saw my friend. I will never forget the sight. There was blood coming out of his nose and I knew he was dead. If I close my eyes I can still see his face as plain as that moment,' said one child survivor.

No-one was coming out alive now and we all knew it. But to stop was to think. Tiredness meant nothing. Eventually someone would politely push you to one side and take your place. Tea, thrust into your wet, black, shrivelled hands. More and more tea. Sweet tea. No end to it. Firemen, miners, police, ambulance men, WRVS. No end to them. All of us far too late.

'I reached the tragic village of Aberfan on Saturday morning. The initial panic and hysteria had died and now there was a well- ordered rescue operation under- way.

'But it was still a grim sight. There was a greyness everywhere. Faces from the tiredness and anguish, houses and roads from the oozing slurry of the tips. The black mass had seemed to penetrate everywhere,' said one witness.

There were shouts of 'murderers' as the Coroner of Merthyr, Ben Hamilton, began reading out the names of the dead children a month or so later.

As the first name was read out and asphyxia and multiple injuries were given as the cause of death, the father of the child said, 'No, sir. Buried alive by the National Coal Board'.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 9, 2006
Words:945
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