Hiraeth

by Huw Jones

Chapter 5

Suddenly, a whistle sounded and a shout rang out, "Quiet everyone!" which was quickly taken up by dozens of other voices. A hush fell over the area and everyone stood absolutely still. Huw realised that a rescuer had thought he heard something. Sadly, when a few shouts from the rescuer had not achieved a response, he shook his head and people resumed digging. For half an hour, he watched the frantic activity feeling both terrified and powerless.

He saw several neighbours and family friends as he wandered aimlessly, too shocked and distressed to know what he should do. "Oh Huw!" said a voice from behind him and he turned to see his next-door neighbour Olwen Jones. He was engulfed in a huge hug. They sobbed uncontrollably on each other's shoulders. "Your mam is down at the chapel with the Minister and other chapel members. They're praying for the rescue."

"You mean they're praying to the God who allowed thousands of tons of coal slag to bury little children so that they'll be rescued," said Huw bitterly.

"Don't say that Huw. We don't understand the purposes of God," said Olwen gently.

"I don't know anything about the purposes of God -- all I know is that my little brother and my little sister and all their friends are buried in that school and if that is the loving God they tell us about in Sunday school then I don't want anything to do with him."

Olwen realised that he was hurting too much to pursue that conversation. "Go down to the chapel, bach, your mam needs you."

Huw realised there wasn't anything he could usefully do there and started the five-minute walk to the chapel. He wasn't surprised to see the doors wide open in the circumstances but he was surprised to see 30 or 40 people sitting in the pews quietly praying. He looked around and quickly saw his mother sitting in her usual pew in the church. As he approached, his mam looked up and saw him. In a repeat of his experience just minutes previously, Huw and his mam fell into each other's arms and sobbed for several minutes.

She tried to ask him the questions that were tumbling from her mind. How did he know what had happened? How did he get permission to leave school? How did he get here? Huw gently explained. "The Headmaster called a special assembly after morning break and told us. I asked for permission to come back immediately but they said they couldn't allow it. I'm sorry, mam, but I just ran out of school and I hitched a lift. Oh God, it's bloody awful."

"Watch your language young man! And don't take the Lord's name in vain," she snapped back.

"Well, your God must have overslept this morning because he certainly wasn't around when that bloody tip started to move," screamed Huw back at her.

She drew back her hand with a furious expression on her face and was about to hit him when she realised what was happening. Both realising that they were reacting out of pain they hugged one instead. "Mam, I need to do something but I don't want to sit here in this place. I'll go and look around for something useful I can do. All those rescuers will need breaks and drinks so perhaps I can help make cups of tea or something."

"OK Huw, cariad, come back here at about four o'clock and we'll decide what to do then."

As he walked back towards the school, he saw a Land Rover drawing a caravan pull up by the side of the road next to the pub. On the side was the familiar red shield logo and legend, 'Salvation Army Kitchen'. Huw went across to the three uniformed Salvation Army officers as they put down the legs of the caravan. He approached the driver of the Land Rover, a man in his fifties and introduced himself. "Hello, I'm Huw Jones and I wondered if you need any help with the kitchen, washing up or anything at all."

"Huw, you're a gift from God!" said the uniformed officer, "I'm Captain Jim Smith and this is Alice Gunn and my wife Betty Smith." The two women, who were about the same age as Jim, beamed at Huw and shook his hand. Huw saw the irony of Jim's comment about him being a 'gift from God' but decided to let it go.

Jim asked, "So why are you here Huw and not at school?"

Huw dropped his head, "When I heard the news I just came straight home. My little brother and sister are buried there." He faltered and continued quietly, "I needed to be useful and I saw you arrive."

Jim and Betty drew Huw into a big hug but, sensitively, said nothing. After a moment's thought Jim said, "Give me a hand getting water for the tea urns, Huw. I'm sure they'll help us in the pub."

"I'll introduce you to the landlord, Mr Hughes. He's a good man and he'll help I know, " said Huw.

The two of them walked into the pub and the publican Rhodri Hughes who was behind the bar looked up in surprise. Huw caught Rhodri's eye. "Hello Mr Hughes, this is Captain Jim Smith from the Salvation Army. Could we fill up his tea urns so we can serve tea to the rescuers?"

Mr Hughes walked out from behind the bar and shook Jim's hand. "Pleased to meet you Jim and hello to you Huw. Is there any news of Mair and Dafydd?"

"Not yet, Mr Hughes," said Huw, "I felt I needed to be here and do something."

"We can only pray, lad," he said to Huw. "Now then Jim, we can do better than just giving you water, set up your equipment on the bar and we'll turn the pub into a tea station. I'll chalk up a notice and put it outside."

So the pub turned into a place of refreshments for the rescuers, not serving its usual fare of beer but tea and coffee instead. Word soon got round and a trickle turned into a steady stream as people from the village began to arrive with cakes and sandwiches to give the rescuers something to eat. Huw was worked off his feet for several hours doing anything he was called on to do.

As the filthy rescuers came into the pub for a very welcome drink and a rest, he would ask them if anyone else had been rescued. The weary response was always a shake of the head. The rescuers wanted to be away for the very minimum time and some did not even sit down while they drank their tea and grabbed a quick sandwich.

While Huw was walking among the tables in the pub collecting cups to be washed up, he looked up to see a small group of people walk in flanked by two senior police officers and two constables. Suddenly he realised who it was that had walked through the door -- it was the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, complete with his trademark pipe. Mr Wilson spoke with the Salvation Army officers and came across to Huw. "Hello lad, you're doing a great job. Are you a local boy?" the Prime Minister asked.

"Yes sir," replied Huw, "My brother and sister are buried in that school."

The Prime Minister looked shocked, "I'm really sorry to hear that, lad. I hope you get good news later." He paused for a moment and squeezed Huw's shoulder, "Good luck lad." He turned around and left with his entourage.

The 4pm deadline to meet his mother back at the chapel came and went and eventually supplies of tea and coffee ran out at 7pm, despite the packets of tea and jars of coffee donated by local people. Exhausted, Huw helped the Officers and Mr Hughes clear up and wished them goodbye. As he was leaving, Captain Jim called him back. "Huw, would you mind if we prayed with you, son?" he asked.

Although his thoughts about God and prayer were very negative at that moment, he did respect Jim, Betty and Alice and the way that the Salvation Army lived out their faith in such a practical way.

"Thank you, Jim," said Huw with a smile, "that would be great."

To his surprise, Jim took his hand and that of his wife and the four of them joined hands. Jim prayed simply for the children at the school, their families, the rescue effort, for peace for those desperate for news and for comfort for those who had lost loved ones. After a few seconds he continued, "And thank you Heavenly Father for Huw and the way he has served others today. We pray particularly for a miracle for Mair and Dafydd and that you would comfort Huw and his mam at this distressing time."

He closed the prayer and all four hugged one another, tears streaking their cheeks. Huw didn't trust himself to say anything further as he smiled and waved at them and started the walk home to a welcome bed. After he had taken a few steps, he turned round and decided to visit the site of the rescue for a few minutes. He saw a very different scene from earlier in the day. The site was now floodlit and gone were the rag-tag group of people attempting to remove the coal waste. A disciplined group of miners were working steadily loading large lorries brought in for the purpose. He shook his head and walked home sadly.

It turned out that Huw had arrived at the site that morning a half-hour after the last surviving child was brought out alive. In the South Wales village of Aberfan a total, 116 children and 28 adults died that terrible Friday morning, 21 October 1966. The world watched and wept.


The story of the shameful tragedy at Aberfan in 1966 that killed 116 children and 28 adults is told at www.hiraeth.wales/aberfan

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