The Aberfan disaster remains one of the worst mining disasters ever seen in Britain, claiming the lives of 144 people, including 116 primary school-age students.
In October 1966, a huge pile of mining waste in southeast Wales was turned to slurry by heavy rainfall. It raced down the hill, devastating the nearby town of Aberfan. A tribunal found the National Coal Board (NCB) to be responsible for the tragedy, and yet no one was prosecuted and the NCB faced no consequences.
The Aberfan disaster was dubbed by one journalist as “the mistake that cost a village its children” and has since been brought to the forefront of public consciousness again by the hit Netflix series The Crown.
The tragedy proved to be something of a watershed moment in public perceptions of health and safety and in the accountability and competency of major organisations.
The village of Aberfan
Aberfan is a small village in southeast Wales, 20 miles north of Cardiff. The economy of the area was primarily centred around mining for much of the 20th century, and almost everyone living there had some connection to the industry. Merthyr Vale, just up the road, was one of the biggest coal mines in the region.
Over time, 7 colliery spoil tips (piles of waste material generated during mining) were established on the hillside above Aberfan. Despite complaints and concerns about the growing size of the tips, the NCB did nothing. Many miners were wary of kicking up too much of a fuss, fearing for their jobs and livelihoods.
Early on the morning of 21 October 1966, after weeks of heavy rainfall, Tip 7 began to slide down the hillside towards the village, engulfing everything in its path. Around 09:15, the avalanche arrived at the village of Aberfan, bringing with it around 38,000 cubic metres of spoil and slurry, which stood up to 9 metres high in some places.
Pantglas Junior School
Aberfan’s primary school, Pantglas Junior, received the full force of the avalanche. Teachers had just begun to take attendance for the final school morning before half term when the school was buried. 109 children were killed by the avalanche, many almost immediately, but several could not be rescued from the thick rubble, which began to solidify when it stopped moving.
Several teachers lost their lives in attempts to shield children from the oncoming debris. Rescue efforts began almost immediately: the last survivor to be pulled from the rubble emerged at just after 11 am. The window with which to conduct rescue operations was narrow, and many suffocated or died from their injuries before they could be rescued.
Many of those children who did survive the disaster suffered from PTSD later in life, with several finding living in the area extremely difficult. The community was often divided between those who lost children in the disaster and those who didn’t.
There was an outpouring of public sympathy following the disaster: thousands journeyed to Aberfan with the aim of helping the rescuers (although if anything, their efforts hindered the professionals from doing their job). Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, visited in the evening, and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the site the next day to offer condolences.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh both visited Aberfan on 29 October, over a week after the disaster. The Queen appeared visibly moved at the site of such a tragedy, though she was criticised for her delay in visiting.
Both the Commons and the Lords approved the creation of a tribunal to instigate an inquiry into the disaster within days. Over 5 months, the tribunal heard evidence from over 130 witnesses.
The National Coal Board
The tribunal came to the conclusion which many knew all along: the fault for the disaster lay entirely with the National Coal Board, and it was entirely preventable. The local community had sent several complaints to the NCB about the danger posed by the tips above the village, particularly because slides were not uncommon in heavy rainfall.
Tip Number 7, which generated the most concern, had been established in 1958 and grown rapidly. In 1963, a minor slip had drawn more concerted efforts to get the NCB to ensure its safety: the hillside on which it was located was known to be made of porous sandstone.
The NCB brushed off the complaints and made it clear that if too much of a fuss was made, the mine would be closed down. Given the reliance on mining within the local economy, the closure of the mine was virtually unthinkable, and the issue was largely avoided.
Much to the frustration of the people of Aberfan, the NCB faced no consequences for their negligence, nor did its staff. No one was held accountable and no one was prosecuted, despite evidence given to the inquiry and the conclusions of the tribunal.
Donations poured in from around the world to help the people of Aberfan. The avalanche had done a huge amount of damage to the town, damaging the water mains, destroying the school and engulfing houses in certain areas of the town.
A disaster relief fund was set up which received over £1.75 million in donations from over 90,000. Controversially, the government demanded a forced donation of £150,000 from the fund towards the clearing process. This was later paid back in full, with an extra contribution by way of an apology.
Lord Robens, who had been chairman of the NCB, was later appointed as chair of a major health and safety review which in turn led to the defining 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
Many of the residents of Aberfan who survived suffered health issues, both physical and mental. The town was used as a study by doctors looking at post-traumatic stress disorder, which many residents later suffered from. With the other tips still looming above the village, a potent reminder of the tragedy, many found it easier to move away than spend their lives in their shadows.