I wished we had known about Aberfan before we traveled through Wales. We would have visited this little hamlet to pay our respects. Although the horrific catastrophe took place over 50 years ago, I wonder if that community has ever really healed. Losing half the town’s population of children, 116, and 28 adults in a matter of moments is something which, I imagine, you can never really ever put behind you. And, this preventable tragedy actually happened to this tiny Welsh coal-mining village on Friday, October 21, 1966, at 9:15 am.
Coal mining, or “black gold”, played a huge part in the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Wood was in short supply by the 19th century and coal was needed to fire the blast furnaces for the iron and copper industries. The dangerous job of mining coal was the center of discontent for most of its workers. Uprisings against employers were commonplace. Although the Factory Act and Mines Act were passed, which were meant to prevent women and children under the age of 10 from working underground, they were by and large, ignored. Accidents, long-term health problems and other catastrophes continued.
Did the coal-mining company knowingly and willfully disregard the maximum amount of unstable waste which could be piled up, on a sloping hill, on top of an underground stream, even though they were warned repeatedly? We’ll never really know. The National Coal Board, however, was responsible for maintaining these waste sites which hovered dangerously close to these small towns and, it’s obvious, they didn’t.
But all it took was a very rainy season that year. Local residents noticed that flood waters were actually dripping down from the coal mines. The situation was dangerous! Meetings were held between the local representatives and the National Coal Board. Although the National Coal Board admitted knowing there was a problem, they did nothing.
It was the last day of the school term, and after a night of heavy rains, at 9:15 am on Friday, October 21st, as the children of the Pantglas Junior School were seated at their desks, with their teacher at the helm, about to begin their first lessons, a deafening roar could be heard outside. It didn’t take but a few moments for this 30′ high avalanche of debris from the mine to wash down the hillside and completely engulf the little school, a row of houses, and a farm. 1.5 million cubic feet of sludge crushed the life out of this community. A torrent of water then engulfed the sludge caused by the broken water mains. It all happened so quickly, the children didn’t have time to flee for their lives. Teachers threw themselves over the children to protect them. 116 children died – ages 7 to 10 … 28 adults – 5 of them teachers … many more injured.
Hundreds of people heard the noise, stopped what they were doing, picked up a shovel and ran to the site. It took over a week for rescuers to retrieve the bodies of the victims. “Civil defense teams, miners, policemen, firemen and other volunteers toiled desperately, sometimes tearing at the coal rubble with their bare hands, to extricate the children,” reported the New York Times. The dead were taken to a makeshift mortuary set up in Bethania Chapel, where many parents had to endure the ordeal of identifying the bodies of their children.
Inquiries were held and findings resulted in this statement … “our strong and unanimous view is 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.”
A mass burial was held on the 25th of October. The company was never prosecuted, nor any of its staff members. Instead a paltry offer of £500 was paid to each of the families who lost a loved one.
Today they have moved on. Well, some of them. It’s still a very sensitive subject, which some refuse to talk about. For the longest time, it was never mentioned in school, but now school children are being taught about this horrific tragedy. Of course, the coal mines have been closed for years … and there now stands a memorial garden where the school once stood. There’s also a community center setup by one of the childhood survivors, which is an integral place for young families. The River Taff, once a smelly streak of polluted, black liquid running through the town is now a source of local pride and brimming with life.
The residents of Aberfan don’t want to deny the tragedy, but they want to be remembered for more than just that. I do know should we get the opportunity to travel through Wales once again, we will definitely pay our respects to this brave little hamlet.
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References: Walesonline, Wikipedia, MSN, Vogue, History Extra, Averfan Documentary