Kate Middleton and Prince William spent a moving morning paying their respects to the 144 people — including 116 children — who perished when a coal mine waste tip collapsed onto the town of Aberfan.
The Prince and Princess of Wales toured the cemetery and memorial garden at Aberfan in south Wales, talking with relatives of those who died and survivors. Heavy rain on October 21, 1966, brought the waste tumbling down the Welsh mountainside, engulfing the Pantglas school and killing 116 children.
One of the survivors, Jeff Edwards, 65, took the royal couple around the town’s cemetery, which lies only yards from where the school stood. The site of the school is now a peaceful memorial garden.
“The visit to the cemetery itself was a very emotional affair. The Princess was really touched. She obviously saw the children were aged between 7 and 10 which related to her own children,” Edwards tells PEOPLE, referring to the couple’s three children — Prince George, 9, Princess Charlotte, 7, and Prince Louis, 5. “That hit her really.”
Edwards said that he and his colleagues told Prince William and Princess Kate that it was difficult for those who had lost children, adding, “Can you imagine your children not returning home? She said, ‘Yes, I can see that.’ “
As they viewed the graves of the children, Edwards — who was the last child brought out alive — told them, “I see the people there, I don’t just see the names.” Kate told him, “It must be very, very difficult for you, Jeff, for you to come along here and do what you’re doing.”
Edward told the couple how that awful day began, from the time he left the house at 8:45 a.m. to 11 a.m., when he was rescued. His friend Robert Jones, who he walked to school with every day, didn’t come home.
As he told his story, Prince William empathized. “He was really, really concerned. He said look after yourself — there was no rushing with them. He said, ‘We’re taking our time, so don’t worry about us being needed somewhere else. We are quite happy to hear what you are saying and your experience of what happened on the day.’ “
One thing Prince William, 40, was insistent on passing on was how the tragedy had affected his late grandmother, Queen Elizabeth. She visited the town four times during her 70-year reign — and kept in contact with some of the survivors and their children. Edwards, who had striking blond hair at the time, says, “She used to call me ‘the boy with the white hair.’ “
He says Prince William told him, “My grandmother always spoke about Aberfan.”
Prince William “had a tear in his eye” when Edwards shared how a week before Queen Elizabeth died last September, she wrote to the local school to thank them for their letters of congratulations sent for her Platinum Jubilee, marking her historic 70 years on the throne.
The couple, whose concentration on mental health has been a bulwark of their public work, also asked how the town coped in the aftermath. “The physical injuries to my leg and stomach would heal but the psychological injuries don’t,” Edwards says. “You live with it to the rest of your life. You learn to manage it but that’s the major impact on all of us survivors. They relate quite a lot to that because of their charities around mental health.”
Gloria Davies, 80, who lost her cousin Brian Harris that day, says the Princess asked how they got through it. Davies told them, “There was counseling, they came in and sat down. But people said ‘No, we’re going to get through it on our own.’ And I think everybody did.”
She adds, “We all said, ‘We got on with it ourselves.’ Everyone in the village was affected.
Prince William told them, “That’s a good thing that you got on with it.”
Davies is chairwoman of the Aberfan Wives, an organization that was set up locally a year after the disaster to help support people. At their group meetings, “The disaster was never mentioned. We would talk about something in the village or something on the news,” Davies says.
“[William and Kate] are special. They were really down-to-earth. I know they were going to be nice people but they radiated warmth,” she says.