British Red Cros teams unload supplies for Aberfan in 1966Even in the days before the internet, news spread fast when a small Welsh village was struck by tragedy in 1966. British Red Cross volunteers arrived in their hundreds to help the local community of Aberfan.

Fifty years after the disaster, read our report of the incident, written in the aftermath.

Disaster strikes

“On Friday October 21st, at about 9.15am, an 800-ft water-logged coal-tip slipped and descended 500 yards, down a mountain-side.

“In an avalanche of greasy slurry it engulfed a farmhouse, an infants and junior school and a terrace of houses in the small village of Aberfan, South Wales.

“The appalling death roll – to date 147, the majority being small children – shocked and stunned the entire world.

“Approximately 750 Red Cross workers were active in the stricken village, working in eight-hour shifts of 30 per shift throughout the entire period of the emergency.”

Supporting the bereaved

British Red Cross nurses take orders in the chapel HQ at AberfanThese teams provided information to the shocked villagers and treated casualties with first aid. Many performed tragic duties that were not for the faint-hearted.

“Personnel received and washed the bodies of victims, working continuously in the Chapel which had been converted into a mortuary. They carried stretchers and coffins.”

Some even dug graves while others “informed the bereaved.”

Across the village “they cared for the distressed and shocked survivors and for the rescue-workers.

“They distributed food parcels and sweets… hot food and drinks.”

A team sorted through the hundreds of floral wreaths and tributes that began to arrive from across the world.

Chips and cigarettes

British Red Cross teams load supplies into a van to take to Aberfan in 1966There was immediately a national appeal on the radio and TV for “waterproof clothing and gumboots”.  Red Cross volunteers stayed up all night sorting through the “vast supplies” that arrived the day after the disaster.

The list of equipment the Red Cross used over the next few days gives an idea of the scale of the work – and the era they were working in. It included 1,000 blankets, 200 cooking pans, 30 cutlery sets, “an uncountable quantity of fruit drinks” and 10,000 cigarettes.

Our volunteers sustained the weary rescue team with a deep fat fryer: “In response to a request received in the middle of one night they set up a chip cooking unit on the site for the men engaged in rescue work.”

In his report the head of the Gloucestershire Red Cross branch wrote:

“The harrowing scenes will remain all their lives in the memories of those who took part.”

Ten years later…

Red Cross news article from 1976 showing Junior Red Cross cadetsIn 1976 we reported how a new generation of children “who weren’t born when disaster hit Aberfan are now leading a Red Cross revival in the village.”

The schoolchildren learned first aid skills – still a key part of our work today. They also “entertained 130 old people” and the mayor, presumably with a performance.

The enthusiasm rippled across the county and created “a revitalised interest in the Red Cross among young people. A year ago the organisation had 60 Junior members, now there are nearly 1,000.”