1. the deaths were not through an act of war or an act of God, but were due to human error.
2. the catastrophe occurred at 9.15 AM, just as the school children were getting settled into school. The loss of so many young children devastated the community.
3. the original event caused a domino destructive effect that could not be stopped.
4. the entire community rallied to help the survivors
5. the bereaved parents and families never really recovered.
Prior to the disaster, Aberfan was a small South Welsh coal mining village, founded shortly after the first excavations for the Merthyr Vale colliery in 1869. This close knit community of miners and their families was sufficiently large to require both a primary and a secondary school. Pit jobs kept Aberfan thriving.
Dealing with the waste was always a problem in coal mining companies, which often generated large volumes of dirty material that could not be recycled. In South Wales, they piled the waste next to the mine workings. Ever since 1869, the hills right above the Aberfan village had been dominated by enormous spoil heaps. Many complaints had been made to the National Coal Board about the dangers of one of the seven gigantic slag heaps that loomed high above the village, including a petition from Pantglas Junior School in 1963.
I recommend readers find "Death under the black mountain" by Steve Humphries in BBC History Magazine. One Friday morning in October 1966 it was raining very hard and the streets were covered in a dense, miserable fog. By 9.15 am, just the children had settled into school, spoil tip No 7 – one of seven slag heaps that loomed high above Aberfan – started to move. Then the entire edifice was transformed into a 30’ tsunami of sludge that slid downhill at 80+ mph. Seconds later, a wave consisting of half a million tonnes of liquefied coal waste crashed into Aberfan in a deafening roar. The wave swept across a canal and over an embankment, before sinking the primary school.
down on to the village below.
The walls of four of the school’s seven classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were destroyed and inundated by 1.4 million cubic feet of liquefied slurry. By the time the cloying black mass came to a halt a few seconds later, the victims were engulfed exactly where they stood or sat. An eerie silence enveloped Aberfan as villagers tried to understand what happened. Then fireman and ordinary citizens rushed to the school and began frantically clawing at the re-solidifying slurry. The dense mass that was left behind was almost impossible to excavate.
Miraculously, some children survived. Five children in the school hall were saved by a dinner lady who dived on top of them to shield them from the slurry. She died.
There was a second grave danger: the avalanche was not caused by water from natural springs underneath the tip, but a torrent of water from fractured mains was spreading over the slurry. Even if the villagers had survived the avalanche by keeping their noses above the slurry line, they would have drowned in flood waters. [It is interesting that the Commission of Enquiry later noted that when coal waste tips were involved, water was undoubtedly the root cause of most failures. But the springs had been known about for many years – they were even shown on the Ordnance Survey maps of the area!]
Then the lead was taken by the local coal board’s Mines Rescue Service, established to rescue miners trapped underground. Coal miners from Mountain Ash, some of them fathers of the school children, were called from their shifts underground and took over from the firemen.
Within 2 hours, the rescuers realised that all of the children they were finding in the school were dead. Many were still sitting at their desks, entombed by the slurry. Once the miners understood that no-one could be saved, it turned into a recovery operation. The slurry had been so fine that the children would have been suffocated straight away; did it comfort the parents to know that their children died instantly? The dead were taken to a makeshift mortuary set up in Bethania Chapel, where many parents had to identify the bodies of their children.
Searching for survivors and for bodies
By the end of the day, the landslide had utterly demolished Pantglas Junior School and 18 houses. Additionally it had seriously damaged the secondary school and many more houses. The final death toll reached 144, of which 116 victims were children – nearly half of the primary school’s pupils. And their teachers.
Nine months later, a tribunal published its report on the disaster. It found that the National Coal Board (NCB) was completely to blame for the disaster, despite the fact that, while giving evidence to the tribunal, NCB chairman Lord Robens insisted the Coal Board was blameless. Lord Robens and the NCB even denied that the Aberfan tip complex had ever slid before, despite clear, documented evidence of tip slides in 1944 and 1963. In the end, no person or organisation was prosecuted for causing the deaths, and for the physical and social ruin of the Aberfan community.
Since the NCB was treated as if it were a government department, making them pay the direct costs of the disaster was considered to be unwise as it would increase the governmental deficit. Furthermore the report said that, according to laws relating to corporate negligence in 1966, no regulatory offence was committed during the Aberfan Disaster because no miners were killed. Unfortunately since the NCB and the Treasury refused to accept liability, they would not fund the removal of tips that still loomed above the village. Lord Robens claimed that it was too expensive (£3 million) to remove them. Fortunately since the 1966 catastrophe, coal spoil tips have been treated as engineering structures requiring proper design and maintenance.
So many small coffins, buried together
Coming to terms with the loss of so many children and teachers has been very difficult for the people of Aberfan. And they haven’t been helped by the local or national governments.
Exactly 50 years after 21st October 1966, on 21st October 2016, Wales again fell silent as the country remembered the Aberfan disaster. A day of events to commemorate the disaster included a service at Aberfan Cemetery. First Minister Carwyn Jones and Prince Charles planted trees in the Aberfan memorial garden... while the bells rang out from St Tydfil's Church. The Rev Irving Penberthy, Methodist minister covering the Aberfan area back in 1966, gave the memorial sermon in 2016.