Obituary: The Rev Kenneth Hayes

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Kenneth Hayes, clergyman: born Risca, Glamorganshire 1930; married (one son, and one son deceased); died Sheffield 25 December 1997.

On 21 October 1966, in the mining village of Aberfan in south Wales, a colliery waste tip slid down a mountain and engulfed the village school, killing 144 people, 116 of them children. Those who saw the deeply moving television programme on the disaster, Timewatch, which was screened in October 1996, will recall two unforgettable images of Kenneth Hayes.

One is the newsreel film of the 36-year-old minister of Zion English Baptist Church, whose own son Dyfrig was missing. He decided that his role was not to dig for bodies but to do what he could for souls. He helped methodically with the grisly task of establishing the death roll - in those first few days it was believed to be even higher than it actually was. On the Sunday after the disaster, the day after his son's body had been found, he preached in his chapel to an audience of journalists, many of them in tears throughout.

In the awful months that followed, he and his wife, Mona, kept the community afloat. They ran an appeal for toys for the surviving children of Aberfan that generated a huge and emotional response, as did the main disaster appeal. Hayes's manse became the office in which the local solicitor took the statements that would confirm the Coal Board's culpability for the disaster.

The other unforgettable image was of Hayes 30 years on, talking to the filmmakers with unnerving conviction:

The end of chapter 8 of Romans is a great summary of faith - "What can separate us from the love of God?" - it's a passage I always use when there's a personal tragedy or disaster and that's a message we always try to emphasise. "I am certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death nor life, neither angels or other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future . . ." As far as we're concerned now, we've still got two boys. We're only separated for a time. One day we're gong to meet. The parting and the loneliness and being without him is terrible, but it's not for ever.

Only such unshakeable faith can have carried him through 30 years of trauma. When he officiated at Aberfan cemetery on the anniversary of the disaster in October 1997, he did so with firm strength that belied his very frail frame.

Kenneth Hayes was born in Risca, Glamorganshire, in 1930, the son of a railwayman, and worked on the railways himself before being ordained in 1953. He ministered at various chapels on either side of the English- Welsh border before coming to the twin villages of Merthyr Vale and Aberfan in 1964.

After the disaster he became chairman of the bereaved parents' organisation. He urged the outside world to leave Aberfan to grieve for itself. He argued against prosecuting the Coal Board employees held responsible for the disaster. He led the campaign to remove the remaining tips above the village. As he wrote to Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, in January 1968:

Every time it rains people are afraid to go to bed . . . and all of us subconsciously are awaiting the alarm to sound . . . The mental well-being of the community today, and the safety of the unborn generations, depends on the removal of tips.

But the Coal Board refused to remove its tips unless somebody else contributed to the cost. Finally, the Wilson government forced the Aberfan Disaster Fund to pay pounds l50,000 towards it - until the last minute it was demanding pounds 235,000. The present government has acknowledged that its predecessor was wrong to take the money. In July 1997 Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, paid pounds 150,000 back to the fund after years of campaigning by Hayes and others.

The negligence which killed over 100 children cost the National Coal Board almost nothing. It paid pounds 500 to the relatives of each dead child, and a total of about pounds 160,000 in compensation to Aberfan villagers. It got pounds 150,000 of that back in the coerced contribution towards removing the tips. The politicians and Coal Board management involved in Aberfan received their normal honours. How nice it would be if society remembered the Kenneth Hayeses, rather than the politicians, once in a while.

Hayes has been buried next to his son Dyfrig at Pontyberen in west Wales.

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