On this day in 1966, 113 children and 28 adults were killed when 110,000 cubic metres of colliery ‘spoil’ slid onto Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan school after heavy rain. The slurry ran 640m down the mountain above the school, on its way demolishing two farmhouses and killing all their occupants, before crushing and burying a large part the school along with nearby houses.
The heap had been built by the National Coal Board (NCB) over a natural spring. Residents had been complaining for years about the danger, but had been ignored by the NCB.
The acting head at the time described what he saw:
The Girls’ Entrance [of the secondary school] was approximately two-thirds to three-quarters full of rubble and waste material…
I climbed onto the rubble in the doorway… when I looked directly in front of me… I saw that the houses in Moy Road had vanished in a mass of tip-waste material and that the Junior School gable-ends, or part of the roof, were sticking up out of this morass. I looked down to my right and I saw that the Moy Road houses had gone.
The scene was of utter devastation:
Local people began desperately digging for survivors, using garden tools and bare hands and soon aided by miners arriving from the nearby pit. No one was found alive after 11am. The children who died were aged between seven and ten. School meals clerk Nansi Williams had used her body to shield five children. They all survived but she was killed. According to reports at the time, she was found by rescuers still holding a pound note she had been collecting as lunch money.
Deputy head Dai Beynon had used a blackboard to shield himself and five children from the avalanche, but he and all the class’s 34 children died. Five of the adults killed in the disaster were teachers at the school. Years later, survivors of the disaster reported that they felt unable to play outside as children because they were too aware of the grief of parents who had lost their children and felt guilty about being alive.
It took the authorities more than two hours to turn off the water pouring from two mains broken by the slide, during which time the slurry continued to move through the village as the mains poured out millions of litres of water.
Shamefully, the NCB and the government of the day resisted local people’s campaign for the removal of the remaining spoil heaps – and when they were removed, they took a forced contribution of £150,000 – a huge sum at the time – from the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund. The money was only repaid more than thirty years later, with the Welsh government – not Westminster – adding further funds to compensate for the wrong.
The Charity Commission initially banned the disaster fund from providing financial help to bereaved families, saying that doing so would breach the terms of the fund’s trust. This ban was only lifted after legal challenge, but the board tried to impose a £500 limit. The fund said it was going to give £5,000 of the £1.75 million ultimately raised to each family.
The board backed down – but said that the Charity should interview each family before giving any money,
to ascertain whether the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally
Some in the media also disgraced themselves. One reporter was heard asking a child to cry for her dead friends as it would make a good picture.
Nine NCB employees were censured by the inquiry that followed for their . None were dismissed or demoted and the NCB was never charged. One of the employees criticised by the inquiry was later promoted to the board.
NCB chair Lord Robens offered to resign – but only after obtaining assurances from the relevant government minister that his resignation would not be accepted. The NCB offered bereaved families just £50, though this was later raised to £500 in what the Coal Board described as ‘a good offer’.
The public inquiry found,
that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented… the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied.
The report had been given to the NCB ten days before publication, allowing the Board to prepare its ‘spin’ in advance.
The people of Aberfan would likely disagree about the wickedness.