Today is the 50th anniversary of Aberfan mining disaster that wiped out a generation, killed 116 children and 28 adults on 21 October 1966. It was not a natural disaster but a man-made disaster by the nationalised National Coal Board (NCB).
At 9.15 am on Friday, October 21, 1966 a waste tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. It first destroyed a farm cottage in its path, killing all the occupants. At Pantglas Junior School, just below, the children had just returned to their classes after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful at their assembly. It was sunny on the mountain but foggy in the village, with visibility about 50 yards. The tipping gang up the mountain had seen the slide start, but could not raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen. (The Tribunal of Inquiry later established that the disaster happened so quickly that a telephone warning would not have saved lives.)
Down in the village, nobody saw anything, but everybody heard the noise. Gaynor Minett, an eight-year-old at the school, remembered four years later:
“It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can’t remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.”
The slide engulfed the school and about 20 houses in the village before coming to rest. Then there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered that ‘In that silence you couldn’t hear a bird or a child’.
144 people died in the Aberfan disaster: 116 of them were school children. About half of the children at Pantglas Junior School, and five of their teachers, were killed. So horrifying was the disaster that everybody wanted to do something. Hundreds of people stopped what they were doing, threw a shovel in the car, and drove to Aberfan to try and help with the rescue. It was futile; the untrained rescuers merely got in the way of the trained rescue teams. Nobody was rescued alive after 11am on the day of the disaster, but it was nearly a week before all the bodies were recovered.
— Andy Davies (@adavies4) October 19, 2016
More than 1.4 million cubic feet (40,000 cu metres) of debris covered the village in minutes. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated; young children and teachers died from impact or suffocation. Many noted the poignancy of the situation: if the disaster had struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, they would have left for the half-term holiday. Rescue efforts were hampered by the large crowd who rushed into the village delaying the arrival of mines rescue workers from Merthyr Vale Colliery.
The official inquiry blamed the National Coal Board for extreme negligence, and its chairman, Lord Robens, for making misleading statements. Parliament passed new legislation regarding public safety in relation to mines and quarries. The specific cause of the collapse was a build-up of water in the pile; when a small rotational slip occurred, the disturbance caused the saturated, fine material of the tip to liquefy (thixotropy) and flow down the mountain.
In 1958, the tip had been sited on a known stream (as shown on Ordnance Survey maps) and had previously suffered several minor slips. Its instability was known both to colliery management and to tip workers, but very little was done about it. Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and the National Union of Mineworkers were cleared of any wrongdoing.
— Sian Lloyd (@SianWeather) October 11, 2016
The tribunal found that repeated warnings about the tip’s dangerous condition had been ignored, and that colliery engineers at all levels had concentrated only on conditions underground. In one passage, the report noted:
“We found that many witnesses … had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds.”
The tribunal also found that the tips had never been surveyed, and up to the time of the landslide were continuously being added to in a chaotic and unplanned manner. The disregard of the NCB and the colliery staff for the unstable geological conditions and its failure to act after previous smaller slides were found to have been major factors that contributed to the catastrophe.
— BBC Wales (@BBCWales) October 17, 2016
The NCB paid out £160,000 in compensation: £500 for each child, plus money for traumatised survivors and damaged property. Nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident, and the tribunal report was scathing in its criticism of evidence given by the principal NCB witnesses. Lord Robens, addressing the National Union of Mineworkers in 1963 had said “If we are going to make pits safer for men we shall have to discipline the wrongdoer. I have no sympathy at all for those people—whether men, management or officials—who act in any way which endangers the lives and limbs of others.”
No NCB staff were demoted, sacked or prosecuted as a consequence of the Aberfan disaster or for evidence given to the inquiry (one notably unsatisfactory witness had been promoted by the time Parliament debated the Davies Report),: Lord Robens and the board of the NCB retained their positions, his resignation was rejected by the minister responsible Richard Marsh and Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Robens had been a Trade Union official, a Labour MP and Minister of Power in Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour Government.
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