The Digital Journalist
Aberfan: The Days After
June 2005

by I.C. Rapoport

It was on every news station that October morning. A mountain had fallen on a primary school in Aberfan, Wales. Scores of children were dead or missing, along with many of their teachers. It was Friday, October 21st, 1966. The children had gone off to school, many of them walking alone, for Aberfan was a safe community. A child could stroll from one end of the village to the other without fear of being swept away by criminals. They had waved goodbye to their mothers, while others, with book bags in hand, kissed their dad's fresh-shaven faces and hurried on to Moy Road to join their friends in the Pantglas Junior School.

A boy who survived

I.C. Rapoport
A short time after 9 a.m. that Friday, the south face of coal "tip” Number 7 began to move; a huge, hovering, hill-sized mound of black slag – useless tailings dug from the local coal mine – soaked from below by hidden springs and awash from continuous autumn rains. In a matter of moments, an avalanche of earth and rock tore loose from the man-made mountain and a thousand tons of slag roared down toward the village, first sweeping away a farmhouse, then crashing onto the primary school, the first of the village buildings. The hillside wall of the school was immediately destroyed and the mud and slurry quickly filled the classrooms, trapping children who tried desperately to flee. The slide continued on around the school for some distance, collapsing nearby homes and shops.

One hundred and sixteen children were killed that day, along with twenty-eight adults. Rescuers were on the scene in minutes. A county road repair crew was working just a few streets away. They heard the awful roar from beyond the fog-cloaked hills, then witnessed the cascading landslide crash against and over the school and the nearby private homes.

They raced to the scene and in the first few minutes managed to rescue several of the schoolchildren. The awful cries from beneath the hellish debris anguished the workers as they dug furiously, some with bare hands. More help arrived. Men raced up Moy Road from the Mackintosh Pub; others, on night shifts and still sleepy-eyed, sprang from their beds and were sloshing through the muck in their slippers. Police and firefighters, laborers, shop assistants, mothers, brothers, schoolmates

A surviving child in the Aberfan cemetery

I.C. Rapoport
from the nearby senior school, all pitched in frantically.

The crisis whistle blew at the nearby Methyr Vale colliery. Citizens, oblivious to the catastrophe at the school, thought there had been a mine disaster and ran to the wrong location. Miners down in the pit were brought to the surface, a one-mile lift ride, and with their tools in their hands, hurried to the school. Hundreds of men and women were tearing at the mud to get down to the half-buried classrooms but for many of the children, it was already too late.

The miners, familiar with digging, worked efficiently: taking charge, forming 'gangs,' tunneling into areas where they believed air pockets may have formed and children might have survived. Other rescuers were digging madly into the muck with no plan in mind and at times injuring themselves or others nearby with unfamiliar tools. Soon the diggers uncovered the small bodies of their loved ones.

"Pieces of brick walls were all around, and this big, they were"

I.C. Rapoport
With each heart-wrenching discovery they lifted the doll-like figure from the deadly grasp of the black mud, shouting: "Here! I have another one,” and tenderly carried the small bodies out, passing them to an assembly line that had formed, which in turn passed each still child hand-to-hand from the school to the cluttered curbs of Moy Road to waiting ambulances.

In New York I watched news report after news report from Aberfan with my four-month-old son lying nearby, and was deeply affected by the tragedy. I had an overwhelming desire to photograph that Welsh mining village—after the first horde of journalists had finally given up the story of the disaster—to photograph the life that ensued.

I arrived in Aberfan on October 29th, 1966, eight days later. The village was hostile ground: sad, angry, wet and cold, half of it still covered in grime from the tip's fallen slurry. I took up residence above the Macintosh Pub in an unheated third-floor garret with two small windows that looked immediately upon the site of the tragedy. I didn't know any of the villagers but I was about meet most of them, and to document their shock and grief and the stirrings of life after so much loss. I left Aberfan on Christmas Day 1966, never to forget the events I witnessed, the faces of the decent people I studied, their stories, and their sorrows.

During a nearly 50-year career as a freelance photojournalist, Bronx-born I.C. "Chuck” Rapoport has photographed many of the icons of the 20th century, including John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Fidel Castro. He was a star photographer for Paris-Match (N.Y. bureau), The Saturday Evening Post, LIFE, TIME, National Geographic and other magazines during the 1960s' heyday of photojournalism. The Aberfan project was the longest and largest assignment of his career. In 1971, Rapoport began a new career as a screen and award-nominated television writer. He lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

© I.C. Rapoport