Aberfan teacher who smashed window to lead pupils to safety in disaster that killed 144 dies aged 82
A teacher who smashed a window to save his students during the Aberfan disaster that killed 144 people has died aged 82.
Howell Williams, from Treharris, in the south of Merthyr Tydfil, was just 25 years old when the coal mine flooded Aberfan’s Pantglas Primary School on 21 October 1966.
The newly qualified PE teacher saved several students by smashing his classroom window with a stone, which was buried under the rubble due to the disaster.
The black avalanche killed 144 people, including 116 children and 28 adults.
Mr Williams died on 29 March at Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant, Rhondda Cynon Taf.
Howell Williams (pictured), from Treharris, south Merthyr Tydfil, smashed a window trying to get his pupils to safety during the Aberfan disaster on 21 October 1966
The tragic incident killed 144 people, including 116 children, in the mining village in Wales
His son, Jonathan Williams, who lives in Radyr, Cardiff, shared how his father never fully recovered after the tragic incident.
Jonathan told WalesOnline: ‘I think it changed him, I think after 25 years he was a different man than before.
“If it had happened in modern times, it would have been very different. There was no guidance then.’
Two-thirds of the children in Mr. Williams’ class died and he was one of four teachers to survive, along with Mair Morgan, Hettie Williams and Rennie Williams.
His son added: “He helped free as many children as possible. But it dawned on him, the survivor’s guilt.”
In “Surviving Aberfan: The People’s Story,” survivor Bernard Thomas recalls how Mr. Williams saved his life.
Mr Williams was one of four teachers to survive the disaster, along with Mair Morgan, Hettie Williams and Rennie Williams (pictured)
A mass funeral was held for 81 of the 116 children and 28 adults who died. Pictured: The grave full of coffins, on the mountainside above the Welsh mining village of Aberfan
He said: ‘I managed to scramble over the rubble, ended up with my teacher and saw one or two children trapped, partly covered, partly buried, some also quite physically injured.
“I remember my teacher pulling his foot and helping me—I’ll always have that memory. I saw that the small panes of glass at the top of the classroom door had been smashed, so he helped me through and through the main hall of the school.
“There was a mud bank to the left of the classroom, and the hallway to the right was blocked with dung. But some of the main windows of the Moy Road side hall were open, so I walked across the street and got out of there.’
Another student, Dilys Pope, who was 10 years old at the time of the accident, previously told the South Wales Argus: ‘My leg got stuck in a desk and I couldn’t move and my arm hurt.
Wales and the rest of the UK were brought to their knees when a huge coal waste dump plunged down the mountainside. Pictured: the path of the coal avalanche
“The kids were everywhere. The teacher, Mr. Williams, was also on the floor. He managed to free himself and smashed the window in the door with a stone.’
“I climbed out and walked down the hall and then out the window. I opened the classroom window and a few kids came out that way. The teacher took out some kids and told us to go home.’
After the disaster, Mr Williams continued to teach at the temporary school in Aberfan for a while before moving to Bishop Hedley Comprehensive School in Merthyr and then Goetre Primary School in Gurnos.
He and his wife Yvonne had three children together: Jonathan, born in 1969, and twins Catherine and Christopher, born in 1973.
In 1997, Queen Elizabeth returned to Aberfan, where she met 80 survivors of the disaster, only to help plant a flowering cherry tree in the memorial garden 30 years later.
What was the Aberfan disaster?
On October 21, 1966, Wales and the rest of the UK were brought to their knees when a massive coal waste tip crashed off the mountainside of the mining village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
With an almighty roar, the black avalanche engulfed everything in its path, including Pantglas Primary School, where classes had just begun.
Minutes after the natural disaster around 9:15 am that day, the village had lost half of its children.
Desperate parents rushed to the scene, clawing at the mud with their bare hands, hoping that the sons and daughters they had waved off hours earlier would still be alive.
In the end, five teachers and 109 children from the school were pronounced dead.
Pictured: The scene that encapsulates Aberfan’s agony when 116 children and 28 adults died as a result of a slide in 1966
The disaster resulted from the collapse of one of the seven slag heaps that lay on the slopes above the village.
The one that fell was erected in 1958 and was 34 meters high.
The structure went against National Coal Board (NCB) rules, as it was built partly on the ground with water sources below.
Due to three weeks of heavy rain, the tip became saturated and about 140,000 cubic yards (110,000 m cubed) slipped down the side of the hill.
An official inquiry into the tragedy was chaired by Lord Justice Edmund Davies and eventually blamed owners NCB for what happened.
With an almighty roar, the black avalanche engulfed everything in its path, including Pantglas Junior School, (pictured) where classes had just begun
NCB chairman Lord Robens was criticized for giving misleading information about whether he knew if there were water sources on the hill.
But no charges were filed against the NCB or its employees.
The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on that day and raised £1.75 million.
On behalf of local residents, it has taken a bitter struggle to get rid of the other dumps on the hill.
The eviction was paid for by the Welsh Government and the Memorial Fund.
Several of the people who survived the disaster suffered from long-term health problems, and many were left with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The disaster resulted from the collapse of one of the seven slag heaps that lay on the slopes above the village