Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Aberfan Disaster: 21 October 1966.

40 years ago today, when I was a small boy living in South Wales, a terrible disaster unfolded on that community in the mining village of Aberfan, and on the psyche of the south welsh nation itself. In the morning of the 21st of October, at 9.15, a "slag heap" consisting of colliery waste (unwanted rock and coal) from a local mine slipped and slid down Merthyr Mountain. On its way, it destroyed twenty houses and a farm, before engulfing Pentglas Junior School. The children had just been singing the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" at school assembly when a great noise was heard outside. Had they been in their classrooms, as they would have been only a few minutes later, the loss of life would have been much reduced, but among the 144 people killed were 116 children between the ages of 7 and 10. It was said that a whole generation had been wiped-out, in that close-knit mining-village world of the Welsh valleys.
At the "Tribunal of Inquiry into the Aberfan Disaster", the National Coal Board (NCB) was found responsible for the disaster itself, due to "ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communication". It was found that the collapse of the slag-heap had been caused by a build-up of water in the pile, and that when a slip happened, the fine material of the tip liquified (thixotropy in engineering terms) causing the whole to slide down the mountain. The primary cause of the "water" was an underground spring beneath the tip. The spring was well known to locals but the NCB denied all knowledge of it. Two days of very heavy rainfall had loosened the slag from the Merthyr Vale colliery causing half a million tonnes of coal waste to callapse in the direction of the school. Parents and miners, as well as the rescue services dug frantically, some with bare hands to try and locate survivors, of whom there were but a handful. A mass funeral was held on 25 October 1966, and the children were buried in separate marked graves on the hillside.
So horrifying was the disaster than everyone wanted to do something - anything - to help. Hundreds of people (including my own father) stopped what they were doing, threw a shovel in the car and drove to Aberfan to try to aid with the rescue. Their efforts were largely futile, and these well meaning but untrained hands simply got in the way of the trained rescue teams. Nobody was rescued alive beyond 11 AM on the day it happened, and it was almost a week before all the bodies were recovered.
The Mayor of Merthyr immediately launched a disaster fund to support the village and the bereaved. Donations poured in from all over the world. I suppose that in its time its influence on international psyche was something like that of the "2004 Tsunami" in Indonesia. The final fund amounted to £1,750,000 (probably £20 million in today's money). Some of the money was donated directly to bereaved families, a sum of £50 each, and it also paid for house repairs, a new community hall, and a memorial to the dead. Since the NCB refused to accept full financial responsibility for the disaster, the fund ended up contributing £150,000 toward the cost of removing remaining tips overlooking the village.
The tragic event of Aberfan led to the "Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act (1969)" and the 1971 regulations, which hold quarry owners responsible for securing the safety of solid and liquid waste tips and providing for design, supervision, inspection, notification, keeping records and making rules for tipping procedures.
Lord Robens of Woldingham, chairman of the NCB did not rush to the scene of the disaster, but instead went to accept his appointment as Chancellor of the University of Surrey. Subsequently, he misrepresented the case of the slide to the community (which had held him in their trust and respect) and falsely claimed that nothing could have been done to prevent it. He never apologised, and bad feeling remains in Aberfan to this day.


Anonymous said...

I have just been reading "How Green was my Valley" and it made me think of the Aberfan disaster - how things don't change. Now we are looking at the same sort of devastation happening on an even greater scale in the area of the tar sands of Alberta - the difference between then an now it seems to me is that we are able to do more damage to more area in less time. Sometimes I find it hard to be optimistic about the state of the world.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Caroline,

Aberfan was a terrible disaster due to a combination circumstances, but had the colliery not continued to pile more and more onto the slag-heap undoubtedly the consequences would not have been as bad as they proved to be. In the local area, people had been watching that heap grow for months, realising it was unsafe, but it was considered too expensive to demolish, and so they just kept piling it on, until it reached 800 feet, as I remember.

I wrote a poem about it, prompted by a recent visit to south wales, which triggered many memories... not all of them good!

I agree, our technology has placed us in an unprecedented position to scourge the environment. In writing these articles I have learned that all resources need other resources to extract them - the tar sands are a good (?) example, in their need for huge amounts of gas and water to extract the "oil" from there. Then there are the environmental costs.

I wonder whether, as the world petroleum reserve becomes exhausted, will we go to any lengths - tar-sands, coal-liquefaction and war (to grab more of the remaining petroleum in the Middle East)? There are a few optimistic technologies (biofuels from algae, say) but I am pretty certain that we will return to living at a reduced energy demand, and I suspect that means returning to localised communities, to cut transportation for one thing.

I'm sure there may be more "Aberfan's" as the world mines more coal, which looks a near certain policy.

I try to remain optimistic, but I fear that the transition to a lower-energy economy might prove extremely painful!


Anonymous said...

hi chris,
mae name is nikita and i have been very interested in what happent on october 21 1966. i am in my secend year of comp and my asesment is that i need to give a speech on a disaster, so i thought of doing it on Abervan, i have learnt alot as my grandparents dont live to far from there. I would like to thank you becouse this page has realy helped me to grasp and learn more about this disaster wich will be in our memoris for many years to come. thank you so much. nikita

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Nikita,

thanks very much for your message. I am pleased that this article was helpful to you. Yes, it was a terrible day, almost like the Boxing Day tsumani (2004), in that everybody wanted to help. There was not much that could be done in Aberfan, as the school was crushed in seconds. I was very young at the time but I remember it clearly, even now. And you are right, this is now part of the identity of South wales.

All best wishes,


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris i too have an assiment to do with the Aberfan disaster we are studying it in my R.e class about Natural and Man-made disasters.I was wondering if you could help me out,i have to write a short paragraph about how it would feel if you were in that school as the slag heap destroyed the school .i would like to take some things out of your story ,is that ok?
Write Back Please
Lewys Cutler

jackthecat said...

Mum stood looking blankly out of the kitchen window after hearing the news on the radio. I was 11years old had no idea that she had an uncle with a wife and children living in the are of this disaster. We were not on the phone in those days so no one could contact us.
Mum calmly walked round to grans to give them the news. I was never told if we lost any one.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

You were four years older than me, then, but it seems neither of us will forget that day. It really is something in the heart of the Welsh psyche, I think? I felt compelled to write a poem about it:


In sixty-six, a slag-heap
slid, so it is said;
as we have read.

It rolled on down and squashed
a school; we didn't know
about the stream.

I was in school and heard
the crash - the teacher's
fear - it was so near.

Just valleys off, my mother's home;
and just the kids,
under the tons.

Eight hundred feet, without a rest,
they piled it on,
it had to go;

but no one knew
about the stream,
so it is claimed;

(a pack of lies, the locals knew),
but no one heard -
not even now.

Forty one years ago an enormous slag-heap slid onto a school in the south Welsh coal-mining village of Aberfan. 127 children died. The cause is now believed to be what engineers call thixotropy, that an underlying stream combined with several days of torrential rain caused the coal/stone debris to turn into a physical state with properties of liquid flow. Knowledge of the stream was denied by the National Coal Board (although it was well known locally) who did all they could to avoid admitting responsibility. I was just a small boy in South Wales at the time, but I remember that morning well enough, to this day. The effect on the world psyche was something like that of the "Boxing day" tsunami of 2004. "Everyone" wanted to do something to help, and financial assistance was provided from a disaster fund contributed from the pockets of individuals; it took many years for formal compensation to be paid, and bad-feeling remains over the whole sorry affair.

Anonymous said...

I have just had a past life regression and was found to be involved in this Im 37 I have no previous knowledge on this awful disaster, but have been told I was one of the children that died that day. Will post further if get any more info

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Nic,

that is very interesting. Please post more on your experience if you wish.



Unknown said...

I'm an old timer now and speant a few years in the pits. This disaster has never been far from my thoughts over the years and I often wonder if people outside the mining community ever realised the heavy price both above and below ground that was paid to keep them warm etc. I'm glad I speant time underground but happier the mines are gone.
Brian Dudhill (Rotherham)

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Brian,

no, I'm sure that most people outside the mines and mining communities are unaware of the harshness and sacrifice involved to keep the lights on.

But as oil and gas become more expensive and run into shorter supply, we will need the coal again, and at ;least one mine in south Wales has reopened. The re-opened Hatfield colliery however has run into financial trouble.



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Laura Siersema said...

Hello Chris--I was eager to read your post and share with you my own endeavor related to the disaster, a modern composition "Aberfan (7 pianos, percussion, voice and tools of rescue)". It has been vital for the integrity of the piece that I understand as well as I can the physical & psychological facts of the event, the reasons it occurred, so that the truth be woven in the music.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Laura,

what an absolutely wonderful project, and a unique way to touch the depths of emotions that remain from "Aberfan" even after 50 years.

I am very moved by your website, and by the music itself.

Best wishes,