In 1966, a British psychiatrist had an idea: to change the course of history by asking the public to share their eerie intuitions
On the morning of 21 October 1966, a dark, glistening wave of coal waste burst out of the hillside above the Welsh village of Aberfan and poured down. People later compared the roar of the collapsing mine tip to a low-flying jet aircraft or thunder or a runaway train. At first, sheep, hedges, cattle, a farmhouse with three people inside were smothered. Then the wave reached Pantglas junior school and Pantglas county secondary school, burying the former, which was full of children answering the register. One hundred and forty-four people were killed by the tip slide in Aberfan, 116 of them children, mostly between the ages of seven and 10.
In the aftermath, a roadblock was set up to control access to the disaster, but more or less anyone in a uniform or an official-looking car could find a way through. During the morning of 22 October, a green Ford Zephyr nosed its way into the village. At the wheel was John Barker, a 42-year-old psychiatrist at Shelton hospital near Shrewsbury with a keen interest in unusual mental conditions. Barker was tall and broad and dressed in a suit and tie. At the time, he was working on a book about whether it was possible to be frightened to death. In the early news reports from Aberfan, Barker had heard that a boy had escaped from the school unharmed but later died of shock. The psychiatrist had come to investigate, but realised he had arrived too soon. When Barker reached the village, victims were still being dug out. “I soon realised it would have been quite inopportune to make any inquiries about this child,” he wrote afterwards. The devastation reminded Barker of the blitz, when he had been a teenager, growing up in south London, but the loss of life in Aberfan was worse for being so concentrated and the dead so young. “Parents who had lost their children were standing in the street, looking stunned and hopeless and many were still weeping. There was hardly anybody I encountered who had not lost someone.”