The Aberfan Disaster

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Podcast Transcript

On Friday, October 21, 1966, the small village of Aberfan, Wales woke up to a typical autumn day. Many of the men in the village went to work at the local coal mine and the children went to the local school.

At 9:15 am, the lives of everyone in the village had changed forever. The village suffered one of the worst industrial accidents in British history. 

Learn more about the Aberfan Disaster, its causes, and its aftermath, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The village of Aberfan is located in the southeast of Wales. In 1966, the village had a population of about 5,000 people, and almost every family had some involvement in the nearby coal mine. 

The history of the village was intrinsically tied up with the coal industry. In 1869 the Merthyr Vale Colliery was established which was the basis of the founding of the village. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the word, a colliery is a British term for a coal mine and its associated buildings.

The primary mine complex was actually located near the top of a hill overlooking the village and the rest of the valley. 

The coal mine, along with all of the other coal mines in the country, were nationalized in 1947 and were controlled by the British National Coal Board, or NCB. 

The origins of the disaster began with a relatively normal part of most coal mines: a spoil tip. A spoil tip goes by several different names, but it is basically a giant pile of residual waste from the mining process. In this case, all of the stuff which wasn’t coal would get put on a giant pile outside the mine. 

In Aberfan, there were seven spoil tips at the site, and the one in question was tip number seven which was started in 1958, eight years earlier. It had reached a height of 111 feet or 34 meters and it contained approximately 297,000 cubic yards or 227,000 cubic meters of material.

This in and of itself wasn’t controversial. Most mines have such a pile and they are usually only dangerous if people climb on it. 

In this case, there were several problems. For starters, the pile was located on a mountain slope, overlooking the village below. 

Second, the pile was built on top of a natural spring. That meant that there was a steady stream of water coming out from the bottom of the pile and that the ground below the pile was perpetually soft and wet. 

Finally, the area around Aberfan was one of above average rainfall. In October of 1966 there had been 110 millimeters of 6.5 inches of rain, and half of that came in the last week. 

This was the state of things on the morning of October 21. A giant pile of mining waste material stood over the town on wet ground, and the whole thing had become soaked in rain. 

The evening before the disaster, the pile of debris had actually dropped by 10 feet, the height of a basketball hoop. The rails which brought material to the pile, and fallen into a sinkhole 

This was discovered at 7:30 am and attention to the activity was brought to the supervisor on site. He decided that work for the day would halt until they could determine a new place for the mining debris. 

Down below in the village, the day began with adults going to work or going shopping, and children going to school.

In particular, students were just arriving at the Pantglas Junior School.

At 9:15 am the bottom of the spoil tip gave out and the entire water soaked mass of debris began rushing down the mountain towards the town below. 

The debris flowed down the mountainside at a top speed of 20 miles per hour, with a wave estimated to be between 20 to 30 feet, or 6 to 9 meters high. 

The debris slammed into the houses and buildings in the village, demolishing everything in its path. The buildings that weren’t demolished were filled with a black wet mass of sludge and rubble. 

The Pantglas Junior School was directly in the flow which came down the mountain. 

From the time the pile began to slide to the moment it came to rest was probably under a minute. 

A total of 144 people were killed in the avalanche. 128 of which were children between the ages of 7 and 10, the vast majority of which were inside the Pantglas Junior School. 

Rescue efforts were hampered by the fact that the slurry that ran down the mountain began to solidify almost immediately. 

The mine was notified almost immediately, and miners were down in the village within 20 minutes to begin rescue efforts. 

The entire scene of the black debris down the size of the mountain and into the town looked like a lava flow. 

Despite the best efforts of the rescuers, no one was brought out of the debris after 11 am. 

The institutional reaction to the disaster was very mixed.

The head of the National Coal Board, Lord Robens, decided not to visit Aberfan, and instead went to a ceremony to get invested as a chancellor of a university. His staff then lied to one of the Welsh members of parliament saying he was on the site directing relief efforts.

The Prime Minister Harold Wilson, to his credit, told the Welsh Secretary of State to  “take whatever action he thought necessary, irrespective of any considerations of ‘normal procedures’, expenditure or statutory limitations”. Wilson arrived that evening to call for an inquiry into the cause of the disaster.

111 bodies had been recovered by the next morning. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip showed up to meet with the rescuers and to console the families.

That evening Lord Roben finally showed up and told the media that the NCB, “will not seek to hide behind any legal loophole or make any legal quibble about responsibility”

However, the next day, Sunday, Lord Roben and the National Coal Board were already beginning to deny responsibility. He was now saying, 

I wouldn’t have thought myself that anybody would know that there was a spring deep in the heart of a mountain, any more than I can tell you there is one under our feet where we are now. If you are asking me did any of my people on the spot know that there was this spring water, then the answer is, No—they couldn’t possibly.

This was of course not true. More on that in a bit.

Over the next week funerals began for the victims. On October 27, there was a mass funeral for 81 children. 

People began questioning the absence of the queen, who finally showed up on October 28. She has subsequently said that not going to Aberfan immediately has been her biggest regret as queen.

A tribunal to determine the cause of the disaster was begun even before all the bodies were buried. 136 witnesses testified over 76 days, and along every step of the way, the National Coal Board did everything in their power to resist having the blame pointed at them.

It turned out that it was a well known fact that there was a spring under the tip, and three years earlier residents of the village brought this to the attention of the coal board. However, they were told to let the subject rest, or it threatened the closure of the mine. 

The tribunal closed in April of 1967 and concluded “[b]lame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. … This blame is shared (though in varying degrees) among the National Coal Board headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals.”

“legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested”

However, the coal board did all they could to resist. The cost of cleaning up the debris in the village had to come from donations to a disaster relief fund, not from the coal board. Likewise, each family with a child that died had to prove to the coal board that they were close to their child to get £500 in compensation for mental suffering. 

30 years after the incident, documents from the coal board became available to the public and an academic study was conducted on the disaster. 

They concluded that the national coal board was monstrously insensitive, at fault, and engaged in a cover up to avoid blame. The coal board put most of their safety efforts in the mines, and neglected safety on the surface. 

In 1997, 31 years after the disaster £150,000, the cost of the clean up in 1966, was returned to the village, but there was no adjustment for inflation or interest paid. 

No one was ever fired, reprimanded, demoted, fined, or imprisoned after the disaster.

In 1969, new legislation was passed regulating tips to ensure that another disaster would never occur again.

In 1989, the coal mine in Aberfan shut its doors for good. 

The Aberfan Disaster remains one of the largest industrial disasters in British history. Not just because of the number of lives lost, but because of how it took away an entire generation of children from a single village.

The associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thomsen.

Today’s review comes from listener OFRasdu from Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

So interesting!

I love all the interesting things this show talks about!

Thank you, OFRasdu. One of the things I enjoy about doing the show is that I get to read and research about all the things I’m interested in.

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