Monday, 3 October 2016

The Aberfan pit heap disaster, 1966

The pit heap disaster that happened in the village of Aberfan on 21st October 1966 was one that shocked the nation, especially because most of the victims were young children.

Disaster in South Wales

I can still remember the profound sense of shock that the whole United Kingdom felt on 21st October 1966 when part of a colliery slag heap slid down a hillside and smashed into houses and a school in the South Wales village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults. I was still at school, and the thought of being in one’s classroom one minute and smothered to death under tons of slurry the next gave rise to a sense of horror that has never left me. Fortunately, the lessons that were learned from the Aberfan disaster have prevented anything similar happening again in this country.

Aberfan and its pit heaps

Aberfan is a small village in the valley of the River Taff, five miles south of Merthyr Tydfil in the central part of what was once the South Wales coalfield. The Taff is one of several rivers that have carved out parallel valleys along which the pit villages were built, strung out in an approximate north-south direction. Between the valleys are bare, steep-sided hills, and it was on these hills that the waste material from centuries of coalmining was piled in vast artificial hills that dominated the towns and villages below.

The danger posed by these heaps had been noted several years before the disaster, and in particular the practice of the National Coal Board in authorising the dumping of slurry from the Merthyr Vale Colliery on top of the existing tip to the rear of Pantglas School, on Moy Road, Aberfan. Engineers from the local authority had noted the fluid nature of the slurry and warned that, under wet conditions, it was unlikely to stay in place on such a steep slope. However, no action was taken and slurry continued to be added to the heap.

The moving heap

The days before the disaster had been wet, although 21st October was dry and sunny up on the hills, albeit foggy in the valley. Shortly after 9.00am, as the men up on the slag heap added another load, the point was reached where the heap crossed the line of stability and a huge mass of slurry broke away. The men were unable to warn anyone of the slide because it broke the telephone line that was their only means of communication. They could only watch helplessly as the slurry headed off down the mountainside into the fog that shrouded Aberfan.

Down below, the children at Pantglas Junior School had just returned to their classrooms after morning assembly, and the teachers were telling their charges to settle down and get their books ready, when a terrible rumbling noise was heard. Very few of the school’s occupants knew what was happening before the slurry hit the single-storey school and caved in the back wall, burying much of the interior up to the level of the roof. Some of the children instinctively hid under their desks and some survived because of this, but many were not so lucky. Hardly anyone survived from the classrooms at the back of the school.

As well as the school, some twenty houses in Moy Road were also hit, as was a farm cottage in the path of the slide that was carried away with all its inhabitants. Most of the 28 adults who died were in these houses and the cottage.

Rescue attempts and the aftermath

When the slurry stopped sliding there was silence at first as the survivors looked on in shock and horror at what had happened. Then there began a desperate effort to dig people out of the slurry, particularly from the villagers who rushed to the school as soon as they were aware of what had happened. Many of them had, not long before, left their own children at the school and had just got home when they heard the terrible rumbling as the slurry bore down on them through the mist.

The would-be rescuers had only their bare hands for tools as they scrambled through the mess to try to reach those buried underneath. There were a few successful rescues but very few; after 11.00 that morning there were only dead bodies to be found.

The 116 children who died (together with five of their teachers) were about half of the school’s total number. They therefore represented a substantial portion of the village’s next generation. Many of their fathers were underground in the pit at the time of the disaster, and their profound shock at being told the news was to affect many for the rest of their lives. They had always imagined that they were the ones at risk of sudden death, and the cruel irony that it was the waste product of their industry that had killed their children was extremely hard to bear.

The Inquiry and Disaster Fund

A Tribunal of Inquiry into the disaster was announced in Parliament within days, even before the last of the bodies had been removed from the school. The Tribunal sat for 76 days and heard evidence from 136 witnesses, the eventual documentation running to 2.5 million words. The main point at issue was whether this was an unforeseeable accident or whether blame could be attached to any specific persons or organizations.

The final report that was published on 3rd August 1967 did not mince its words:

“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.”

One significant piece of evidence was the fact that a natural spring emerged underneath the pit heap, which therefore kept the base of the heap permanently lubricated. It was therefore only a matter of time before the continual loading of slurry would cause the heap to collapse. At first the National Coal Board officials denied having known about this spring, but they were eventually forced to acknowledge that it was known about and people had trusted to luck that nothing bad would happen.

With the blame laid firmly on the National Coal Board, would any individuals be held to account? Nine people were singled out for criticism, but no proceedings were taken against them. Likewise, the Coal Board was not required to pay the full amount of compensation to the victims’ families that might have been expected. One problem was that the coal industry was in financial difficulties, and bankrupting the Coal Board (a public body) would have helped no-one.

However, the British public contributed generously to a Disaster Fund which eventually raised £1.75 million. It was nothing short of a scandal that some of this money (some £150,000) had to be used to fund the removal of the remaining pit heaps above Aberfan, as this was clearly the responsibility of the National Coal Board. It was not until 1997 that this money was finally refunded by the Government.

Aberfan today

Visitors to Aberfan today will see a peaceful, quiet village that is safe for ever from the threat of a slurry slide, as the heaps have all gone. Indeed, the village is bypassed by a road that goes through the place where the heaps once stood. The school was demolished and in its place is a memorial garden, next door to a community centre that was built by the trustees of the Aberfan Disaster Fund. Up on the hillside are the graves of about half the victims, marked by a stone monument.

The lesson of Aberfan is that corporate greed must never again be allowed to put innocent lives at danger. By taking unwarranted shortcuts and ignoring clear warnings, the officials of the National Coal Board put the pursuit of profit above the safety of their employees and their families, much as their predecessors had done in the dark days of the early Industrial Revolution. The Aberfan disaster was a “one-off”, thankfully, because it brought home to the managers of British industry, in all sectors, the fact that they cannot put their responsibilities to one side whenever it suits them.

Aberfan will long be remembered, and not just in the South Wales valleys where the disaster was felt most keenly.

© John Welford