Remembering Aberfan

On 21 October 1966 I was at work in Cardiff when we heard there had been a disaster in a small valley community near Merthyr Tydfil. We assumed it must have happened underground and that miners had probably been injured or killed. Such tragic events had happened before in the South Wales valleys. Later that day, however, as we watched the evening news on our black and white televisions, we realised that a disaster like no other had struck the small mining village of Aberfan.

By 9 o’clock that Friday morning 240 children and 9 teachers had arrived at Pantglas Junior School for the last day of school before the half-term holiday. It was a damp and misty morning after a week of heavy rain. At 9.15 the school was engulfed by an avalanche of 100,000 tons of black slurry. The school building was demolished, as were some houses. Many of the men of the community were at work in the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. When they heard about the disaster they rushed to the school to try to help. The women went to the school and felt utterly helpless as they saw the devastating scene. Their children were in that school. Were they alive or dead?

The Aberfan disaster claimed 128 lives – 116 children, 4 teachers, the headmistress and 23 local people. The following Thursday there was a mass funeral when the bodies of many who had died were buried side by side in one long grave over which a beautiful memorial was later built. The Aberfan Disaster touched the hearts of people around the world and £1,750,000 was donated to the Disaster Fund.

Aberfan was a man-made disaster and, eventually, the National Coal Board accepted their responsibility. The tip had been sited on a spring and had been poorly managed. Warnings about what could happen had been ignored. Eventually the Board paid families £500 compensation for each child who had died and the Disaster Fund gave them £5000.

To whom can we turn when tragedy strikes? At the heart of the Christian Gospel is a young man called Jesus, the only Son of his heavenly Father, who died a cruel death on a Roman Cross. He died in our place and for our sins. On the third day he rose again. He is uniquely able to help us in the darkest experiences of life because he understands our deepest grief, comforts us when our hearts are broken and gives us a sure hope of eternal life.

All work and no play

The summer holidays have arrived and many families have already gone away for their annual break. Children are looking forward to 6 weeks when they don’t have to go to school and there is no homework. Hopefully the weather will be good and they will be able to relax, play with their friends and do things they enjoy doing. They, and their teachers, will return to school in September refreshed and ready to start a new academic year.

We all need a balance between work and rest. So it is very sad that there are plans to allow larger shops to open longer hours on Sundays. Local councils will be allowed to extend opening hours if this might “boost economic activity”. The chancellor thinks there is a “growing appetite” for shopping on a Sunday and feels that some people consider shopping to be one of their leisure activities. There are understandable concerns that if larger shops open longer hours this will put pressure on their employees to work extra hours and some smaller shops may close.

The Ten Commandments, which establish the moral basis for our lives, include a commandment about a weekly day of rest. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

All of us, whether we are religious or not, need and benefit from regular times of rest. The proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is true. When we don’t have times of rest and recreation we do become bored and boring people. For Christians Sundays also have a special significance because they remind us about heaven and the wonderful blessings God has prepared for all who love him. At many funeral services these words from the Book of Revelation are read, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”