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.