For the village of Aberfan the morning of October 21st, 1966, started like any other.
It was a sunny day and an early autumn fog hung in the air, parents filtered through the streets to their workplaces and children journeyed to school. It was 9:15AM and the students of Pantglas junior school had just returned to class following their morning assembly. Sitting in their classrooms they felt a shuddering, like an earthquake, which grew more and more intense, along with a thunderous roar – which survivors describe like a jetliner passing overhead. There was barely any time to react as windows shattered and the walls caved in. 500,000 imperial tonnes, approximately 1.4 million cubic feet, of liquified slurry surged through the school and surrounding houses devastating everything in its path. A 111 feet tall tip of mining waste from the local colliery had collapsed onto the village. The mining communities of Wales had grown accustomed to tragedy, but Aberfan was different, 144 people lost their lives – 116 of whom were children aged between 4 and 11. Remembered as one of the darkest days in the history of Wales, the trauma of Aberfan still lingers 56 years later.
Aberfan was a fairly small mining village, with a population of approximately 5000 people in 1966. Due to this, there were no local emergency services, so police and ambulances were dispatched from the neighbouring town of Merthyr Tydfil which was a 10-minute drive at least and they would not arrive until 9:35AM. The first rescuers on the scene were locals who immediately began digging through the mound with their bare hands and gardening tools, followed by experienced miners from the colliery 20 minutes later. The miners took over early excavation of the mound as they knew unsupervised digging would lead to further collapse. Within a few minutes they began recovering bodies and survivors, the first of whom was rushed to hospital in Merthyr Tydfil by 9:50AM. At 10:30AM the BBC news broadcast the disaster at Aberfan, which led to thousands of volunteer rescuers descending on the village – although well-meaning the volunteers were often a hindrance to miners and emergency services. At 11AM the blonde hair of a schoolboy, Jeff Edwards, was seen poking from the mound. Jeff was the last survivor to be pulled from the mound. In total 35 people were recovered alive from the pile. One casualty was 44 year old lunch lady, Nansi Williams, who heroically gave her life shielding 5 children from the slurry. All 5 of them survived.
In the wake of the disaster, one question loomed over Aberfan – how had this happened? On october 25th, 1966 a tribunal into the disaster was formed. The tribunal was extensive, taking months to hear the hundreds of witness testimonies. Blame for the disaster was laid directly at the feet of the National Coal Board (NCB), and for good reason. Pile 7 (the pile that collapsed) was the most recent of Aberfan’s spoil tips – massive hills of waste rock and soil from mining – and had been growing in size for years. The spoil was piled directly on top of various springs and streams that saturated the base of the hill with water and destabilised the mound. This was, shockingly, legal as the UK had no laws or regulation regarding the management of spoil tips at the time. In addition to the poor foundation 3 weeks of heavy rain had liquified the spoil at the summit of the tip. When this slurry ran down the pile it destabilised the structure and caused the avalanche that decimated the village. Concerns had previously been raised regarding the safety of the Aberfan tips, but were quickly dismissed by the NCB. The tribunals report concluded that:
“The Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. … the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied.”
Even though the evidence was overwhelming to condemn members of the coal board, they refused to take blame during any point of the inquiry and even actively hampered investigations. No NCB employees were ever prosecuted, fired or even demoted. It remains an egregious insult to the people of Aberfan.
The disaster fund
News coverage of Aberfan was extensive and harrowing, the scenes on TV and radio coverage shocked and horrified a nation reeling from the loss of so many children. A disaster fund was created and quickly received approximately 90,000 donations totaling £1.75 million – an estimated £36 million in today’s money. But the suffering of Aberfan’s residents was not over yet, the charity commission was in charge of overseeing the fund and families of the victims had to fight a protracted legal battle to even gain access to the money – the BBC reports that families weren’t even allowed to access the fund in order to pay for their children’s gravestones. One of the most vile aspects of the disaster fund was the NCB’s refusal to take financial responsibility for the spill, and when residents demanded they cleared the remaining 6 tips (which still posed a threat to human life) the NCB only did so when the Harold Wilson’s government agreed to plunder £150,000 from the fund. The callous indifference of the NCB only grew worse as national media attention shifted from the disaster, as compensation the coal board initially agreed to pay families of the victims a sum of £50. This was later increased to £500 following a massive public backlash, which was still a measly amount considering the NCB owned nearly 1000 collieries and employed more than 100,000 people in 1966.
The deep and permanent traumas left by the disaster still loom over survivors 56 years later. Jeff Edwards, the last survivor to be pulled from the slurry, spoke of his trauma to the BBC and discussed his decision to never have children:
“Your personality has changed to such a degree your traits, your make-up, your being has been so fundamentally altered you wouldn’t want to perpetuate it.”
The damage wrought by the disaster is impossible to quantify, the suffering and heartbreak of losing an entire generation is a wound that will never fully heal. But I hope there is a small comfort in knowing we will never, ever forget them.