On the morning of 21st October 1966, children filled noisily into the Victorian redbrick Pantglas Junior School in the small Welsh village of Aberfan. Despite the dreary weather, there was an air of excitement – it was the last day before half term, and considering it was only a half-day, the children knew they would be free in just a few hours.
It was a soggy day. The kind of persistent heavy rain you typically get in this Welsh valley area that leaves a dense fog clinging to the hills and creeping through the village. One by one the children took their seats and eventually teachers throughout the school began taking the morning register.
Shortly after 9.15 am, a low rumble could be heard, later described as sounding like a low-flying jet or thunder. The sound gained in volume over the coming seconds, building to a deafening roar as lights in the school started flickering. Some rushed to the windows to look out, but it was too late.
One of Britain’s worst disasters was now unfolding, which would eventually take the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were children. It was a catastrophe of surreal proportions and one which has left painful memories ever since.
Nestled beside the River Taff and at the foot of Mynydd Merthyr hill, the small village of Aberfan is a place scarred by the events of 21st October 1966. The harrowing loss of life, predominantly children, has cast a dark shadow across the village that remains to this day.
Aberfan, along with two other villages, Merthyr Vale and Mount Pleasant, form a collective community known as Ynysowen that lies 8 km (5 miles) from the larger town of Merthyr Tydfil, once described as the iron capital of the world.
Until 1869, Aberfan was nothing more than two small cottages and an inn, but this is an area rich in coal and once the Merthyr Vale Colliery had been established, communities began quickly springing up. Like many mines in the region, the Merthyr Vale Colliery was a huge success and certainly played its part in powering the drive through the Industrial Revolution.
It provided huge numbers of jobs and with it came a small bustling community, complete with a butcher, grocers, banks, a department store, a cinema, library, recreational hall and of course the odd pub.
But as with many coal mining communities in the western world, as things began to modernise and governments found it significantly cheaper to either buy coal from abroad or even switch fuel sources, employment numbers began to dwindle. By the 1960s, the colliery employed 800 people, down from its peak of 2,000. Coal mines across Britain had been privatised in 1947, with responsibility now falling to the National Coal Board (NCB) – a moderately tyrannical organization with a firm grip on local unions and local government.
The role of the NCB in this story is fundamental and it’s worth stating just how different things were 66 six years ago. This was a time when ideas relating to corporate greed, workers rights and health and safety regulations hadn’t exactly arrived at what we’d expect today.
There was still huge amounts of money to be made from the Merthyr Vale Colliery, even if it was beginning to run dry. NCB’s role was effectively to keep the mine profitable and running smoothly. With the industry as a whole starting to sag dramatically, it was a delicate situation, financially speaking.
Another delicate situation of a very different variety was the 7 spoil tips gathered around the village. Spoil is the waste material removed while mining which unfortunately needs to go somewhere and for as long as anybody could remember, that somewhere was in huge piles that slowly built up into mini-mountains. These were initially placed on the valley’s lower slopes but after 1910, spoil was placed on the western slope directly above the village.
By 1966, 7 spoil heaps had accumulated adding up to an estimated 2.0 million m3 (2.6 million cubic yds) – which was enough to fill 80% of the Great Pyramid of Giza. All this lay just above the village, but only one was still in use, tip number 7 which had reached a height of 34 metres (111 feet) and contained around 227,000 m3 (297,000 cubic yards) of spoil – enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall two and half times. But importantly, this tip also included 23,000 m3 (30,000 cubic yards) of tailings, fine particles of coal and ash that tends to take the form of quicksand when wet.
No doubt some of you are watching this with incredulity, how on earth was the coal industry allowed to heap so much spoil directly above a small village? But this was very much how things had been done for a long time and in an era where what the company who effectively ran the town said was usually taken at face value. If the NCB thought that looming mounds of spoil above Aberfan weren’t a danger, then that was that.
It’s also important to remember that for this community, the mine was everything. If the mine closed, the village would suffer horribly. How much was ever explicitly said we don’t know, but NCB had certainly fostered a situation where complaints wouldn’t necessarily be levied at the organization out of fear that the mine would close in retaliation. Stuck between a rock and a hard place is probably the best way of looking at it.
But there was another problem, one that would be pivotal to the entire disaster and which would never be entirely explained away. Tips 4, 5 and 7 had been placed above streams or springs, which had been included on Ordnance Survey Maps for well over one hundred years, so was certainly known by those at the colliery. Tip 7 had actually slipped slightly just three years before when a crater appeared at the top of the pile, but NCB had dismissed the possibility that the village could be at risk – although they did stop dumping tailings on tip 7.
21st October 1966
There were several cruel twists of fate that meant the Aberfan disaster played out as it did. Had it occurred just a few hours earlier or later, the Pantglas Junior School would have been empty. In fact, with the school set to be closed the following week, it was the absolute worst time that anything could have happened.
The three weeks leading up to the disaster had seen consistent heavy rainfall with 170 mm (6.5 inches) falling, half of which came in the third week alone. On the night of 20th October, a large shift in Tip 7 saw it collapse by 2.7–3.0 m (9–10 feet) with some of the rails used to transport the spoils falling into the hole created at the top.
When the morning shift arrived at 7.30 am, an assessment of Tip 7 was carried out and deemed safe, although it was decided that a new tipping location would need to be found shortly. With that settled, those working on the heaps went about their business.
At 9.15 am the ground began to move. Those who witnessed it have described it as a black avalanche as the spoil first collapsed in on itself then shot out from the bottom in waves, travelling 18–34 km/h (11–21 miles per hour) with each crest reaching 6.1–9.1 metres (20–30 feet) in height. There was no time to raise the alarm, and even if there had been, somebody had stolen the cable for the telephones up on the mounds.
Those down in the village on the western side around the Moy Road area had little hope as the black tsunami barrelled downhill, picking up terrifying speed as it went. The first wave crashed into the two cottages on the outskirts of the village, killing those inside instantly before cascading into Aberfan itself, ripping apart two water mains which exacerbated the catastrophe even more. The rows of terraced houses on Moy Road were obliterated by the powerful spoil surge which then slammed into the school, with 240 children present. For those inside, everything went black.
Eyewitnesses in the vicinity described the eerie silence once the black avalanche came to rest. Before the sirens exploded and the wailing of the colliery alarm began, a horrifying stillness hung in the air. There were no immediate cries aloud, even the birds held their tongues. One person described it as “if nature had realized that a tremendous mistake had been made and nature was speechless.”
Within minutes, local residents began arriving at the school and were confronted with a scene of utter horror. The spoil had filled the four classrooms, burying those who had been at their tables just moments earlier and in another tragic twist, the tailings that had been in Tip 7, began mixing with water to create a cement-like concoction.
Those first on the scene began digging frantically with household tools and at exactly 9.25 am, the first phone call arrived at the police station. The unknown caller said quickly,
“I have been asked to inform that there has been a landslide at Pantglas. The tip has come down on the school”
Twenty minutes after the accident, miners began streaming down from the colliery and immediately started directing rescue efforts, which were still hampered by the burst water mains that meant the slip continued to move through the village. It’s estimated that around 9–14 million litres (2 and 3 million gallons) of water poured out as rescue efforts got underway. It wasn’t until 11.30 am that the water was finally turned off and by that point, those who would come out from the school alive, had already done so.
It was a frantic scene with hundreds digging into the hardened spoil. By this point, the group included firefighters, police, medics, the army, civil defence and miners from surrounding pits. A whistle would blow at short intervals and those desperately searching would pause for a few seconds, hoping with fading desperation that sounds could still be heard from within the school.
Gradually survivors were dragged clear of the school wreckage with the first to arrive at St Tydfil’s Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil at 9:50 am, followed by a further 22 children and 5 adults, while 9 casualties were sent to the East Glamorgan General Hospital. However, no survivors were discovered past 11 am – just an hour and forty-five minutes after the disaster.
The deceased were taken to the nearby Bethania Chapel, just a couple of hundred metres away, which operated until 4 November. Two doctors examined the bodies of those brought in to determine the cause of death and to issue death certificates. Most had died of asphyxiation, fractured skulls or multiple crush injuries and it would take many painful days until the majority had been identified.
In the coming days, volunteers from around Britain poured into Aberfan to assist the stricken community. Some, no doubt with the best of intentions, simply got in the way of the experienced rescue teams, though many made a huge difference, perhaps most notably, the four hundred volunteer embalmers who cleaned the dead bodies ready for burial. One such group had come from Northern Ireland and had removed all of the seats from their plane to accommodate as many child-sized coffins as possible.
By the morning of the following day, 111 bodies had been retrieved, roughly half of which had been identified. Funerals began immediately with five held on the 22nd October and mass funeral for 81 children and one woman held on the 27th October and attended by an estimated 10,000 people, where the coffins were laid all together in a pair of 24 metres (80-foot-long) trenches.
Several high-profile dignitaries arrived in the immediate aftermath, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Prince Philip and the chairman of the NCB, Lord Robens all appearing to pay their respects. But one face that didn’t appear for eight days was that of the Queen. Despite urgings from her own family and advisors, Her Majesty remained resolute that her presence would be more of a hindrance than any help.
But this was a time when Britain was changing, perhaps becoming more emotionally aware and the response to the Aberfan disaster is seen as one of its earliest indicators. Public pressure on the Queen to visit quickly mounted and she did so on 29th October.
Now, it’s impossible to know just how the Queen reacted to her visit. In an episode of the Crown she was portrayed in a slightly callous way and there have even been suggestions she may have faked her tears. Others describe her decision not to go to Aberfan earlier as the single biggest regret of her entire time on the throne, and that it had a shattering effect on her.
After 15 days, the final victim had been identified. A total of 144 lost their lives, ranging in age from 3 months to 82 years. 116 of those killed were children, most aged between 7 and 10.
“The Second Disaster”
As the dust settled, pain and anger erupted. The public response to the disaster had been overwhelming and the Aberfan Disaster Fund quickly reached £1.75 million (around £22 million today) in donations from across the country. But this immediately began to cause further distress as the committee set up to manage the fund refused to release the money, even to pay for headstones. The question of whether it should be given to individual people or in ways to benefit the community as a whole degenerated into a bitter argument.
To twist the knife even further, NCB initially denied all responsibility for the accident but after public pressure they did agree to give compensation – a paltry, slap in the face £50 (just less than £1,000 today). When residents baulked at such a figure and the media exploded in fury, that number went up to £500 (about £9,500 today) which remained well below what most people thought was suitable for what had happened.
But this was just the start. Furious Aberfan residents demanded that the remaining spoil heaps above the village be removed – a demand I think not a single person watching would call unreasonable – but which the NCB dismissed as being “irrational”. Things escalated quickly when a group from the village dumped a load of coal in the reception of the Welsh Office, leading to NCB finally agreeing to move the heaps. But get this. They were allowed, by the government, to use £150,000 (£2.8 million) from the disaster relief fund to carry out the removal. If that doesn’t stink of corporate greed I don’t know what does.
Then we have the media. In an age when sensationalist emotionally driven news reporting was just getting going, the Aberfan disaster revealed a dark side of media that we’ve sadly seen expand to grotesque proportions. This was the emotional tragedy of the year, and perhaps of a generation, and news outlets circled Aberfan like vultures, often leaving residents horribly distressed. This is probably best described by a news photographer who was reported to have asked a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture.
Inexplicably, the NCB has never been held accountable for what happened in Aberfan. During the 76 day tribunal, they first argued that it was an act of God for which they couldn’t be blamed for the heavy rain and other geological factors. But in a dramatic u-turn, perhaps because things were beginning to look a little dicey, the NCB finally acknowledged its role in the disaster and the effect the streams and springs had had on the spoil mounds.
The tribunal found that the accident was not the result of “villainy” but was “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 a total lack of direction from above”.
And yet, not a single person was ever charged with a crime and the NCB was never prosecuted. Nobody in the company lost their jobs or were even demoted, it was as if the disaster that caused 144 to lose their lives had never happened.
The reason for this has never been fully explained and no doubt lies within the murky underworld of governmental offices that sought not to take full responsibility, while effectively spinning the disaster and creating a different narrative.
For those involved with the Aberfan disaster, life was never the same again. There have been higher cases of premature death than usual among the survivors and their families, with suicide often the cause. In the immediate year after the accident, deaths among close relatives were 7 times higher than the national average. The effects of PTSD were also dramatic, particularly with the children that were pulled from the school, with sleeping difficulties, nervousness, lack of friends, unwillingness to go to school and enuresis all common among survivors.
Some events come to define a place, and perhaps even a country, during a specific time and for many, the horror of Aberfan is just that. It led to significant changes in how the coal industry worked, but this was always an industry on the decline and the coming years for the region proved to be increasingly difficult. Today, the mine has long closed and Aberfan is a quiet little rural village with a great deal of charm if you arrived without any knowledge of what happened.
But it will also be a place that carries a dark, weighty secret.