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A catastrophe which should never have happened

12:00am | & News

A terrible disaster which left Britain reeling in horror will be remembered today, 50 years on.

Before the dreadful events of October 21st, 1966, few people beyond its locality had heard of the small Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil. After that day it would become a name forever synonymous with the awful disaster which killed 144 people, 116 of them children.

Like so many other Welsh communities, Aberfan was a mining village, and while the people of Wales were hardened to the ever-present dangers of digging for coal deep underground, nothing could have prepared them for the tragic events of that day.

For half-a-century millions of tons of excavated mining debris from the National Coal Board’s Merthyr Vale Colliery had been deposited on the hillside directly above Aberfan. Remarkably there were no regulations governing the location or safety of these huge spoil heaps and locals had warned that the one at Aberfan was being piled up on top of natural springs, which would inevitably make it unstable.

As recently as 1963 the local council had written to the NCB setting out its concerns about spoil being tipped on the mountain above Aberfan’s primary school. In 1964 a local councilor warned if the tip were to move it could threaten the school, and the following year mothers of the children there signed a petition against the tip, presented to Merthyr County Borough Council by the school’s headmistress.

Early on the morning of Friday October 21st, 1966, all those unheeded warnings came true with deadly consequences. After several days of heavy rain, the tip began to move and disintegrate, sending a tide of liquefied slurry 40 feet deep crashing into the village. More than 1.4 million cubic feet of water-soaked black sludge destroyed a farm then 20 terraced houses before slamming into the northern side of Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school.

No-one in the path of the fast-moving torrent of mud, rubble and sludge stood a chance. In the school, pupils had arrived only around 20 minutes earlier to begin their last day before the half-term holiday. If the disaster had happened an hour earlier or a day later so many young lives would have been spared. The roar of the approaching landslide was tremendous, but it was so sudden that barely anyone saw it coming through a heavy fog, or had a chance to flee. Some thought a jet plane was about to crash and one teacher ordered his class to take shelter under their desks.

As soon as the landslide halted, there was total silence. At first few could understand what had happened, but as soon as the realisation dawned, frantic rescue efforts began. Anguished parents rushed to the school, clawing through the debris with their bare hands. For some there was untold relief when their children emerged dazed but alive, but for so many others it was already too late.

Hundreds of miners rushed from local collieries, bringing their skills to bear in excavating the site. In the first hour a handful of children were pulled out alive, but after 11am no more survivors were found. By the next day more than 2,000 emergency workers were at the scene, human chains removing debris by the bucketful. Lifeless young bodies, most without a mark on them, were brought out with a grim regularity, each sparking fresh heartbreak. It would be almost a week before the last of the dead were recovered.

The final death toll would number 144, including 116 children aged between seven and 10, and five of their teachers. Most of the victims were buried in a joint funeral at Aberfan’s Bryntaf Cemetery on October 27th. Attended by more than 2,000 mourners.

Slowly the grief gave way to anger at the knowledge this was a disaster which should never have happened. The mood was summed up by Aberfan resident Dai Tudor, who said: "I’ve warned and campaigned for years about that tip. Nobody in authority took any notice. This is not just the greatest tragedy in Wales. It is the biggest scandal."

Anger was compounded by the actions of Alfred Lord Robens, chairman of the NCB. On hearing of the disaster, he chose to go ahead with his investiture as Chancellor of the University of Surrey, not arriving in the village until the evening of the following day. Once there he told a TV reporter nothing could have been done to prevent the disaster, blaming it on “natural unknown springs” beneath the tip – a claim that was not only patently untrue but easily proven so through the documented evidence of warnings ignored by the NCB. The springs were even marked on maps of the area!

The scandal would continue long after the disaster. While none felt the grief as sharply as those in Aberfan, people across the country and even overseas empathised with their dreadful loss. A tangible expression of the desire to help was the setting up of a disaster fund, which after a few months had topped £1.6 million (almost £28 million in today’s money). The more than 90,000 people who had contributed to the fund – many of them schoolchildren donating their pocket money ­– expected it to be spent on the community of Aberfan.

But payments were cruelly slow, even to cover the cost of memorials at the cemetery. At one point the Charity Commission, put in charge of administering the fund, even debated whether payments to bereaved parents should be determined by how close they had been to their dead children, as this would affect the level of their mental suffering.

Meanwhile £150,000 of the disaster fund money was given to the NCB to help it cover the cost of removing the remaining tip above the village. It argued that if its tip was not actually unsafe, it should not bear the full cost of its removal.

Most of these scandalous truths only emerged after 1997, when previously embargoed government documents were made public under the 30-year rule. When that happened Tony Blair’s Labour Government handed back the £150,000, but with no allowance for inflation or interest. In 2007 the Welsh Assembly announced it would donate £1.5 million to the Aberfan Memorial Charity and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education charity, but no connection was made to the glaring shortfall of the 1997 payment.

An official inquiry into the disaster, held in 1967, placed the blamed squarely on the NCB, its total absence of any tipping policy and its failure to survey any spoil tips for possible dangers. The NCB paid out £160,000 in compensation – £500 for each child killed plus money for traumatised survivors and damaged property.

Nine senior NCB staff were identified as having some level of responsibility for the avoidable disaster, yet no NCB staff were ever sacked, demoted or prosecuted as a consequence of it.

Today will be a day of mixed emotions for the people of Aberfan, many of whom remember the events of 50 years ago as if they were only yesterday.

• To see a Pathé newsreel of the Aberfan disaster, click here.

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