At 9.15 am on the morning of October 21, 1966, a coal slag heap at Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Within five minutes, it had buried a school, several cottages and a farm. In total, 144 people were killed – 116 of them young children, studying at Pantglas school.
The National Coal Board (NCB), the creaky custodian of all nationalized coal assets in Britain blamed the accident on abnormal rainfall (although it had received earlier warnings). Its grandiose chairman Lord Robens — who was driven around in a Daimler bearing the plates ‘NCB 1’ and who was known as ‘Old King Coal’ — didn’t help the matters: upon hearing of the accident, he instead went ahead with his plans to be installed as chancellor of Surrey University and showed up in Aberfan only the following day — with an outsized cigar.
By this time, images of the wreckage of Pantglas Junior School had already been widely circulated. The most iconic was that of eight-year old Susan Maybank (later Susan Robertson) carried off from the school by policeman Victor Jones. Mel Parry, then an eighteen year old apprentice photographer, remembers the day: “I got off the bus, saw it, rang the office and asked the chief photographer if he could bring some equipment down. As soon as he arrived, I just started taking pictures. The photograph that everybody’s aware of I have no recollection of taking. It was, from what I’m led to understand, one of the first three that were ever taken of the site…. I saw the photograph later in the evening when the paper came out. I didn’t think anything of it, I didn’t even think it was mine – I didn’t find out until three days later…. Personally I wish I’d never taken it, because I wish the disaster had never happened. I just happened to be one person in the right place at the right time. Six or seven years later I got out of photography altogether. It gave me 15 minutes of fame on the back of a disaster and that is something I would not wish on anybody.”
Parry won the news category of the British Press Photographer of the Year, the youngest-ever recipient. Ironically, the full-sized photo (above) was never actually carried by any paper: it was cropped out by the darkroom assistant, who wanted to hone in on the central image of rescuer, child and wailing woman.