Today is the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, a catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, in 1966, that killed 116 children and 28 adults. It was caused by a build-up of water in the accumulated rock and shale, which suddenly started to slide downhill in the form of slurry. Over 40,000 cubic meters of debris covered the village in minutes, and the classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated, with young children and teachers dying 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, the school would have broken up for half-term. Enormous rescue efforts were made, but the large numbers who crowded into the village tended to hamper the work of the trained rescue teams, and delayed the arrival of mineworkers from the Merthyr Vale Colliery. Only a few lives could be saved in any case.
I remember watching events unfold on television with horror. In fact I believe it is the first time in my life that I was so deeply affected by tragedy – and still am. I can’t write without weeping. The stark black and white images are seared in my memory. I couldn’t really fathom the enormity of it, then or now. I was relatively new to England, having grown up in Australia, so Welsh coal mines, slag heaps and the like had not been part of my consciousness. They were after that.
For 50 years up to 1966, millions of cubic meters of excavated mining debris from the National Coal Board’s Merthyr Vale Colliery was deposited on the side of Mynydd Merthyr, directly above the village of Aberfan. Huge piles, or ‘tips’, of loose rock and mining spoil had been built up over a layer of highly porous sandstone that contained numerous underground springs, and several tips had been built up directly over these springs. Although local authorities had raised specific concerns in 1963 about spoil being tipped on the mountain above the village primary school, these were largely ignored by the NCB’s area management.
Early on the morning of Friday, 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a subsidence of about 3–6 metres occurred on the upper flank of colliery waste tip No. 7. At 9:15 a.m. more than 150,000 cubic meters of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village, with visibility only about fifty meters. The tipping gang working on the mountain saw the landslide start but were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen – although the official inquiry into the disaster later established that the slip happened so fast that a telephone warning would not have saved any lives.
The front part of the mass became liquefied and moved down the slope at high speed as a series of viscous surges. 120,000 cubic metres of debris were deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain, but a mass of over 40,000 cubic meters of debris smashed into the village in a slurry 12 meters (39 ft) deep. The slide destroyed a farm and twenty terraced houses along Moy Road and slammed into the northern side of the Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school, demolishing most of the structures and filling the classrooms with thick mud and rubble up to 10 meters (33 ft) deep. Mud and water from the slide flooded many other houses in the vicinity, forcing villagers to evacuate their homes.
The pupils of Pantglas Junior School had arrived only minutes earlier for the last day before the half-term holiday. They had just left the assembly hall, where they had been singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, when a great noise was heard outside. Had they left the assembly for their classrooms a few minutes later the loss of life would have been significantly reduced, as they would not have reached their classrooms when the landslide hit: the classrooms were on the side of the building nearest the landslide.
Nobody in the village was able to see it, but everyone could hear the roar of the approaching landslide. Some at the school thought it was a jet about to crash and one teacher ordered his class to hide under their desks. Gaynor Minett, then an eight-year-old at the school, later recalled:
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.
After the landslide there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered:
In that silence you couldn’t hear a bird or a child.
After the main landslide stopped, frantic parents rushed to the scene and began digging through the rubble, some clawing at the debris with their bare hands, trying to uncover buried children. Police from Merthyr Tydfil arrived soon after and took charge of the search-and-rescue operations; as news spread, hundreds of people drove to Aberfan to try to help, but their efforts were largely in vain. A large amount of water and mud was still flowing down the slope, and the growing crowd of untrained volunteers further hampered the work of the trained rescue teams who were arriving. Hundreds of miners from local collieries rushed to Aberfan, especially from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery, as well as miners from Deep Navigation Colliery and Taff Merthyr Colliery in the neighboring Taff Bargoed Valley, and also from pits across the South Wales coalfield, many in open lorries with their shovels in their hands, but by the time those miners reached the site, there was little they could do. A few children were pulled out alive in the first hour, but no survivors were found after 11 a.m.
By the next day, 2,000 emergency services workers and volunteers were on the scene, some of whom had worked continuously for more than 24 hours. Rescue work had to be temporarily halted during the day when water began pouring down the slope again, and because of the vast quantity and consistency of the spoil, it was nearly a week before all the bodies were recovered.
Bethania Chapel, 250 meters from the disaster site, was used as the temporary mortuary and missing persons bureau from 21 October until 4 November 1966 and its vestry was used to house Red Cross volunteers and St John Ambulance stretcher-bearers. The smaller Aberfan Calvinistic Chapel was used as a second mortuary from 22–29 October and became the final resting-place for the victims before their funerals.
Two doctors were given the job of making death certificates and examining the bodies; the causes of death were typically found to be asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries. A team of 400 embalmers arrived in Aberfan on Sunday and under police supervision they cleaned and prepared over 100 bodies and placed them in coffins obtained from South Wales, the Midlands, Bristol and Northern Ireland. The bodies were released to the families from the morning of Monday 24 October. Due to the cramped conditions in the chapel/mortuary, parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify the bodies of their children. One mother later recalled being shown the bodies of almost every dead girl recovered from the school before identifying her own daughter.
The final death toll was 144. In addition to five of their teachers, 116 of the dead were children between the ages of 7 and 10 – almost half of the children at the Pantglas Junior School. Most of the victims were interred at the Bryntaf Cemetery in Aberfan in a joint funeral held on 27 October 1966, attended by more than 2,000 people.
The chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB) at the time of the disaster was Lord Robens of Woldingham. Robens had been a senior union official in the 1930s and then served as a Labour MP, briefly becoming Minister of Power in the final days of the Attlee Labour government. His actions immediately after the Aberfan disaster and in the years that followed have been the subject of considerable criticism.
When word of the Aberfan disaster reached him, Robens did not immediately go to the scene; he instead went ahead with his investiture as Chancellor of the University of Surrey, and did not arrive at the village until the evening of the following day (Saturday). NCB officers covered up for Robens when contacted by the Secretary of State for Wales, Cledwyn Hughes, falsely claiming that Robens was personally directing relief work when he was not present.
When he reached Aberfan, Robens told a TV reporter that nothing could have been done to prevent the slide, attributing it to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip, a statement which the locals knew to be false – the NCB had in fact been tipping on top of springs that were clearly marked on maps of the neighborhood, and where villagers had played as children. His evidence to the Tribunal of Inquiry was unsatisfactory; so much so that counsel for the NCB in their closing speech to the Tribunal asked for Robens’ evidence to be ignored. He took a very narrow view of the NCB’s responsibilities over the remaining Aberfan tips. His opposition to doing anything more than was needed to make the tips safe (even after the Prime Minister had promised villagers the tips would have to go) was overcome only by an additional grant from the government and a (bitterly opposed and subsequently much resented) contribution from the disaster fund of £150,000 (nearly 10% of the money raised).
The traumatic effects of the disaster on the village of Aberfan were wide-ranging and profound, as the first-hand accounts gathered by Iain McLean and Martin Johnes indicate. During the rescue operation, the shock and grief of parents and townspeople were exacerbated by the insensitive behavior of the media – one unnamed rescue worker recalled hearing a press photographer tell a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Aberfan on 29 October to pay their respects to those who had died. The Queen received a posy from a three-year-old girl with the inscription: “From the remaining children of Aberfan”. Onlookers said she was close to tears.
Anger at the National Coal Board erupted during the inquest into the death of 30 of the children. The Merthyr Express reported that there were shouts of “murderers” as children’s names were read out. When one child’s name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father said “No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The coroner replied: “I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying” but the father repeated:
I want it recorded – “Buried alive by the National Coal Board.” That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.
Aberfan’s social worker later noted that many people in the village were on sedatives but did not take them when it was raining because they were afraid to go to sleep, and that surviving children did not close their bedroom doors for fear of being trapped. An Aberfan doctor reported that although an expected surge in heart attacks did not occur, the trauma of the disaster manifested itself in other ways – the birth rate went up, alcohol-related problems increased, as did health problems for those with pre-existing illnesses, and many parents suffered breakdowns over the next few years.
Many suffered from the effects of guilt, such as parents who had sent children to school who did not want to go. Tensions arose between families who had lost children and those who had not. One of the surviving school children recalled that they did not go out to play for a long time because families who had lost children could not bear to see them, and they themselves felt guilty about the fact that they had survived.
On 26 October 1966, after resolutions by both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State for Wales appointed a tribunal to inquire into the causes of and circumstances relating to the Aberfan disaster, chaired by respected Welsh barrister and Privy Councillor Lord Justice Edmund Davies. Before the tribunal began, the UK Attorney General imposed restrictions on speculation in the media about the causes of the disaster.
The Tribunal sat for 76 days – the longest inquiry of its type in British history up to that time – interviewing 136 witnesses, examining 300 exhibits and hearing 2,500,000 words of testimony, which ranged from the history of mining in the area to the region’s geological conditions. Lord Robens made a dramatic appearance during the final days of the Tribunal to give testimony, at which point he conceded that the National Coal Board had been at fault; had this admission been made at the outset, much of the tribunal’s inquiry would have been unnecessary. The Tribunal retired to consider its verdict on 28 April 1967. Its report, published on 3 August, found that the blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board, and that the basic cause was the NCB’s “total absence of a tipping policy”.
The report also noted that the NCB was:
…following in the footsteps of their predecessors. They were not guided either by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries or by legislation” and also found that there was “no legislation dealing with the safety of tips in force in this or any country, except in part of West Germany and in South Africa.”
…we reject out of hand Mr. Ackner’s observation that what has been revealed here is “callous indifference” by senior National Coal Board officials to the fears of a tip-slide expressed to them. Callousness betokens villainy, and in truth there are no villains in this harrowing story. In one way, it might possibly be less alarming if there were, for villains are few and far between. But the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains, but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan. That, in all conscience, is a burden heavy enough for them to have to bear without the additional brand of villainy.
Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. This is shared, though in varying degrees, among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals … The legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation of the personal injuries, fatal or otherwise, and damage to property, is incontestable and uncontested.
The specific cause of the collapse was found to have been 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 earlier 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.
The Tribunal found that repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip 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 right up to the time of the landslide they 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.
The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child. 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.” However, no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked, or prosecuted as a consequence of Aberfan or of evidence given to the Inquiry (one notably unsatisfactory witness had been promoted by the time Parliament debated the Davies Report). Lord Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions. Corruption (and incompetence) in high places has a long history.
I wouldn’t call this disaster, nor the outrageous aftermath, anything to celebrate. But I think we can celebrate the tireless efforts of the rescue workers and the generally indomitable spirit of the Welsh. So here is a classic Welsh dish: cawl, a meat and root vegetable stew thickened with oats and seasoned with summer savory. I don’t normally peel vegetables for stews, just scrub them well. Do as you please. The swede has to be peeled.
2 lbs stewing pork,cut in bite-sized chunks
1 medium swede (rutabaga), peeled and cubed
3 medium size carrots, peeled (optional) and cut in chunks
2 medium size parsnips, peeled (optional) and cut in chunks
1 large potato, peeled (optional) and diced coarsely
2 leeks, washed well and cut into think rounds
1 small cabbage shredded coarsely
fresh summer savory
2 tbsp oatmeal
Put the meat in a large stock pot, cover with stock and bring to a simmer. Skim, and cook covered for about 1½ hours or until tender. Make sure the broth remains at a constant level.
Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Keep warm.
Simmer the rutabaga in the broth for 30-40 minutes.
Add cold water to the oatmeal and mix it to a paste, then add fresh summer savory to the paste, to taste.
Add the diced potato, carrot and parsnips together with the oatmeal paste to the broth.
After 10 minutes add the sliced leaks and chopped cabbage.
Continue to simmer until all the vegetables are tender.
Remove the cawl from the heat. Serve in deep bowls garnished with savory. The meat should be served separately on a heated serving platter, allowing people to help themselves. Crusty Welsh bread makes a good accompaniment.