The Aberfan Disaster
The Aberfan Disaster is one of the most haunting tragedies in Britain’s history. Over 40 years on, the loss of 144 lives – 116 of them schoolchildren – is still raw.
On 21st October, 1966, at 09:15am, the children of Pantglas Junior School, in the small mining town of Aberfan, South Wales, were returning to their classrooms after morning assembly. After heavy rains, a waste tip slid down the mountainside and took everything in its path, swallowing the village and killing almost half of Pantglas’ students. Around 20 houses were engulfed by the slurry.
There was no time to raise an alarm. The ensuing enquiry noted that the tipping gang could not raise the alarm as the telephone cable had been stolen – purloining of industrial wire was rife in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But it was ruled that a telephone warning would have been no use. The town was shrouded in fog, typical of autumn in the valley. Aberfan never saw it coming. It heard it, though, the slide, earth and coal waste, coming to a thundering halt.
Eyewitnesses recall an impenetrable silence once the slide was over. The rescue effort, including almost 2,000 volunteers, was frantic, but equally powerless to stop the loss of life. It took a week to recover all of the bodies. Hitherto unknown, a modest town built from toil in the pit, Aberfan was now a by-word for disaster. It was a product of Britain’s heavy industry. It pre-dated and initiated the health and safety legislation that British industry has to comply with. The principals of corporate liability were in their primacy, and Aberfan was a watershed in the balance of interest between big business and the people.
The warning signs were there. For a number of years, concerns were raised over the safety of the waste tip. But the politics of the time were fraught. The National Coal Board, and its chairman Lord Robens of Woldingham PC were heavily criticised in the ensuing tribunal. The blame was laid at the NCB’s door. Yet there were no penalties levied against Lord Robens or the NCB. Nobody was officially censured. £150,000 of what was raised through the disaster fund, set up to help the victims’ families, was used to help clear other waste tips in the area. Another symptom of the autistic relationship that corporate organisations had with its neighbours. The money was repaid in 1997, after the intervention of Ron Davies, the then Secretary of State for Wales.