Aberfan

The huge looming hills of the tips over-shadowing Aberfan, in the days immediately following the disaster.

The huge looming hills of the tips over-shadowing Aberfan, in the days immediately following the disaster.

Mothers waved off their children in the small mining village of Aberfan, for the last day of school before the half term break, it was 21st October 1966. Up on the hillside, overshadowing the village were several large coal slurry tips, hundreds of feet high, waste from the mines that dotted around the village. Children now grown recall playing in the stream of water that fed out from springs underneath, and increased with the usual rainfall of the area.

At around 7.30 that morning as the team that controlled the waste tips reached the top of the tips, they noticed a depression had occurred, and that the waste hill seemed to have shifted slightly. A crane used in the tipping process had sunk, and the rails and side rails were in the hole. It was decided that they would need to bring them out. It was a foggy day over the village as they looked down, but the mountainside was clear. They went for a cup of tea.

As they walked towards their hut, the slurry seemed to shift again, this time alarmingly. There was nothing they could do… vandals had allegedly ripped out the telephone wires – later reports suggest there wouldn’t have been time to raise an alarm and evacuate. They could only watch in horror as Tip number 7 loosened off and hurtled down the side of the mountain at an ever increasing speed, gathering more volume as it progressed.

At 9.15 approximately, after taking out two farms, killing the occupants, and smashing its way through Moy Street, demolishing the row of houses that stood there, it hurtled into the wall of the local Junior School, Pantglas, burying the children and teachers who had just finished their assembly and had returned to their classrooms, half of which were situated on the mountain facing side.
Ready to start the day’s lessons, teachers were taking registers and writing work on blackboards. The resonance of the hymn “All things Bright and Beautiful” had minutes before rang through the corridor from 200 little voices. Should they have remained in the Hall, a central position around which the classrooms stood on the outer edges, for just a few minutes longer, they would perhaps have been saved, none would yet have reached their classrooms, where the majority of the impact was to be.

photo of the masses of rescue workers forming coherent lines of clearance of the debris. Note how far up the building the slurry covered. these workers and villagers stand in line with the roof of the school

photo of the masses of rescue workers forming coherent lines of clearance of the debris. Note how far up the building the slurry covered. these workers and villagers stand in line with the roof of the school

What was to happen then was anything but bright or beautiful. The lucky ones later recalled a loud rumble, like a jet about to crash into the building. Many of them froze, not being able to see anything, until the last moments when the windows filled with a horrifying blackness, as hundreds of thousands of wet coal slurry and mud rammed into the side of the school, burying them in thick choking mud and waste up to ten metres deep. One teacher in the last few moments instructed the class to get under their desks. Mercifully, their classroom was spared. Others were not so lucky.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the by now still landslide, dried and set like concrete, as word spread quickly around the village. Parents ran to the scene, still unsure of what exactly had taken place. All they knew was, something bad had happened, and their children were in danger. When they reached what remained of their little community junior school, they were met with devastation. One side was completely destroyed, buried under the waste from Tip number 7, a slick up the hillside was all that remained.

They clawed frantically at the rubble and slime with their bare hands, mostly in vain. Joined quickly by their men-folk, some of whom were coming straight from shifts in the mine that had provided the waste in the first place over many years. At eleven that morning, less than two hours after the disaster had taken place, survivors had been rescued from where they had landed, many suffering broken bones and crush/impact injuries until this point, rescuers had managed to dig out just three surviving children from beneath the slime that remained. Official trained rescuers had started to arrive, and were forced to try and remove the 2000 villagers that were desperately trying to free their trapped children, before organised efficient rescue to begin.

Swarms of media arrived on the scene and roads around the village and surrounding areas became blocked with traffic and emergency vehicles. Between eleven o clock and the end of the day, a further 67 children had been recovered, every one of them were dead. A local chapel was set up as a temporary morgue. Parents formed a queue outside, they were only able to be admitted one or two at a time, such as the limitations on space, to walk amongst the rows of little bodies, laid in the pews, covered with blankets, looking into each little face until able to identify their missing child. No further survivors were found. It took a full week to clear the site and locate all the bodies. In total, 116 children and 28 adults were killed that day. Identifications were finally completed by 4th November.

Lord Robens, Chairman of the National Coal Board and the NCB were held up as responsible for the disaster, although refused to publicly admit culpability until 76 days into the public inquiry that followed. The coal board were publicly admonished. Lord Robens had failed to even show his face at the disaster until the following evening. As the children of Aberfan died beneath his company waste, he was otherwise engaged in his investiture as Chancellor of a University.

the memorial arches that dominate the hillside cemetery, outside Aberfan. Each arch represents one child lost. Not all of the children were buried here, some families chose private funerals and burials in other areas for their children.

the memorial arches that dominate the hillside cemetery, outside Aberfan. Each arch represents one child lost. Not all of the children were buried here, some families chose private funerals and burials in other areas for their children.

At the inquiry, he attempted to claim that the coal board had known nothing about the water springs beneath tip no. 7, a claim immediately reputed by the local community who argued that everybody had known the springs were there, a fact backed up by their charting on earlier Ordnance maps. It was claimed that heavy rain in the preceding days had made the hill unsteady. The heavy rain was proven to be of a normal standard for the area. It was further claimed that the slurry had until that morning been safe. The miners disputed this point too, citing examples in both 1944 and in 1963 when major slips had occurred in the very same tips.

Lord Robens offered his resignation, knowing full well that the Prime Minister would turn it down. As the community desperately tried to pull their lives back together in the midst of their grief, children who survived suffered their own guilt and trauma, not to mention their own recoveries from physical injuries, they felt unable to play as children could. Their playmates were gone. Bereaved families looked questioningly at those whose children had survived. The streets, once ringing with the sound of happy children, fell silent. Three days after the accident, the coroner began to release the dead for burial. An inquest for the first 30 child victims turned to uproar when the cause of death for several was given as asphyxiation, crush injuries, multiple fractures… one father stood and demanded that the death certificates should read “Buried alive by the National Coal Board” on his child’s certificate as that was what had happened, and that’s how everybody felt.

From all over the country, 90,000 donations were made to an impromptu disaster fund, set up as a charity. The figure raised over £1.6 million, in today’s terms, perhaps ten times that amount. Months after the disaster, Lord Robens demanded from the fund £150,000 insisting that a substantial contribution to the costs of clearing what remained of the still dangerous remaining tips. The money was reluctantly paid. Forty years after the accident, then Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed that the money was misappropriated from the charity and re-paid the sum, in 1960’s terms, no interest. There are still calls for the 21st century equivalent, around £1.5 million to be re-paid, including an estimated interest accumulation of around £60,000 per year.

The majority of the money in the fund, remains to this day, a hideous white elephant, raised in knee-jerk response by national grief over the loss of a generation of children. Parents were granted a flat-rate sum of around £500 per child, provided they were injured physically or had been killed. A commission set a criteria which demanded parents be asked to prove they were close to their children before payment would be released for any mental trauma. The trust administering payments abandoned their quest for those parents to be compensated.

The first funerals took place on the 27th October 1966, a mass ceremony attended by thousands of mourners, when the majority of the victims were buried together in one mass funeral. The charity fund later paid for the memorial to the victims in the cemetery, and for a memorial garden and playground which continues to stand on the cleared site of Pantglas School. It continues to pay for the upkeep. It is estimated that when the remaining survivors pass away, millions of pounds will remain in the fund. The Treasury will at that point retain the leftover money. The fight continues by the families to reserve the money for the continued upkeep of the memorials.

Phoebe