Today was the 54th anniversary of Aberfan, and so here’s everything you should know about this disaster:
- Those coal tips that you can see in the first picture below were dotted all over the landscape in the ’60s. Mining was Wales’ primary industry, and nearly every South Wales town was essentially built around its colliery. It was commonly said that without the pits, there would be no towns. These mines were regulated by the National Coal Board, a government institution. At the time, devolution had not happened in Wales, and all Welsh issues were governed by one department, the Welsh Office, which was an office of the British government based in Cardiff.
- The tips that dominated the landscape near Aberfan were terribly placed. The man who was responsible for choosing their location was not given any training in how to determine where to tip the coal waste, and unfortunately he decided to use an area which was notorious for its underground springs. It flooded all the time, and local children would play in the springs, which were visible on all the Ordinance Survey maps of the time. They weren’t secret.
- In 1963, a spoil heap tipped into a valley, causing massive damage but luckily not killing anyone. After this, it was recommended that all mines conducted a review into their spoil heaps, examining every one and reporting back to the central body with comments about its safety. This was not done at Aberfan because the two men responsible for doing so didn’t get along, and didn’t want to work with each other on the report.
- In the years before 1966, local councillors and villagers consistently raised concerns about the location of the spoil heap behind the school in Aberfan, given the fact that Tip 7 was on the top of a hill behind the school and was on top of an underground spring. These warnings were repeatedly ignored.
- At 9:15am on 21st October 1966, the last day of the school term, the underground spring underneath Tip 7 caused the coal to become slurry; a thick liquid coal. Unable to bear the weight of the solid coal at the top, the bottom of the spoil heap Tip 7 collapsed, tipping 40,000 cubic metres of slurry and debris onto the village, directly on top of Pantglas Junior School. It also destroyed a water pipe, flooding the town and hindering rescue efforts. 116 children (half of the children at the school) were killed, either drowned or suffocated, as well as 5 teachers. The total death toll of the disaster was 144. Every single street had a bereaved family. Half a generation was lost.
- Volunteers came from all over South Wales and beyond to help the rescue efforts, which quickly became recovery attempts. The disaster happened at 9.15am; no-one was found alive after 11am. Volunteers worked into the night. Whenever they thought they heard the sound of someone beneath the slurry, a whistle would be blown, and silence would fall. Some miners ended up digging through the hardened slurry for the bodies of their own children
- In the wake of the disaster, which to date is the largest disaster involving children in the UK, a charitable fund was raised by the public which amounted to £1.6mil. In today’s money, the amount raised would be £27.8mil. This money was supposed to be used to rebuild the community at Aberfan and to provide care for the injured and traumatised children who had survived. Some parents were asked to prove the extent to which they had suffered after their children’s death in order to have access to compensation from this fund.
- A tribunal found that the National Coal Board was responsible for the disaster. The NCB’s defence was that the disaster had been ‘unforeseeable’, despite the knowledge of the springs, the previous tips, and the warnings from local people and miners. The tribunal dismissed this and found that the NCB was at fault because it hadn’t trained its staff in how to tip safely, and had repeatedly ignored the warning signs — of which there were many — of the disaster. 9 individuals were named in the report as being at fault. None was disciplined. All kept their jobs.
- Afterwards, the villagers of Aberfan began a campaign to get the remaining spoil heaps removed. The government refused, saying that it would be too expensive. Despite being found liable, the NCB refused to pay for the removal. Eventually, the villagers stormed the Welsh government buildings at Cardiff after they arrived and were refused permission to speak to anyone. Armed with bags of slurry from the remaining tips, they dumped them into the government offices, suggesting that the government might like to live with the slurry instead.
- Eventually, the head of the NCB, fed up with the villagers asking him to pay for the disaster for which he had been found wholly responsible, decided that he needed to take money from the Aberfan Disaster fund. He took £150,000 (10% of the entire total of the money raised) and used it to remove the spoil heaps, with the support of the government.
- In 2007, the Welsh Assembly repaid £2mil in order to compensate the fund for the amount requisitioned by the NCB. The fund is still in use today, and mostly deals with the psychological trauma of the current residents. The fund was also used to build a community centre near one of the residential streets where the slurry also fell, and a memorial garden on the site of the former school.
- Apparently, there was some discussion in the government as to the amount of compensation each bereaved family should receive. Some government officials were worried that, as residents of a low income and working class area, the local people would be unable to deal with receiving large amounts of money and would not spend it on their children, and should therefore receive smaller payments.
- Parents were accused by NCB insurers of trying to ‘capitalise’ on their children’s death when they expressed dismay at the offer of £500 compensation (£9,380 in today’s money), which had been raised from an initial offer of £50 (£938 today.)
- Half of the survivors of the disaster have experienced PTSD. Survivors of Aberfan have been found to be three times as likely to live with PTSD as other adults in a comparison group who had also experienced life threatening traumatic events.
- The Charity Commission refused to use the donated funds to pay grants to children who had survived ‘physically uninjured’, despite the fact that these children, all aged under 11, were severely traumatised. Many couldn’t sleep alone, and were terrified of the dark. This wasn’t entirely the fault of the Commission as regulation of payments made by charity trusts were very inflexible; nevertheless, the surviving children were left to recover within an already fractured community.
- Even today, 54 years later and in the midst of a global pandemic, the flowers on all the graves are fresh.
God came one day to gather flowers,
And on the way, he gathered ours.