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HomeNewsGuilt unpunished, sadness unabated: Aberfan 55 years on

Guilt unpunished, sadness unabated: Aberfan 55 years on

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Emergency call received by Merthyr Tydfil police, 9.25 am, October 21, 1966: ‘I have been asked to inform that there has been a landslide at Pantglas. The tip has come down on the school.’ 

ON Friday morning, October 21,1966, a coal waste tip slid down a mountainside on to Aberfan, a small mining village in South Wales and home to some 8,000 miners and their families. 

The Smithsonian Magazine records that it had been raining heavily ‘all the previous week, heavy rain, and mist shrouded the valley.’ At 7.30am, workers up the mountain on colliery waste tip Number 7 discovered ‘a subsidence of about 3-6 metres’ on its ‘upper flank.’   

According to documents held by the Durham Mining Museum, tip Number 7 ‘rose 111 feet above ground and contained nearly 300,000 cubic yards of waste. Set atop an underground spring covered by porous sandstone, the heap was precariously placed and (due to the rain) extremely oversaturated.’ 

The men tried to shore up the slip in vain, and at 9.15 am more than 150,000 cubic metres of debris broke away and a 30ft high black water-saturated ‘tsunami’ of sludge raced down the hillside at speed estimated to be in excess of 80 miles per hour.  

The tip workers were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been stolen – again. 120,000 cubic metres of debris was deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain and a mass of over 40,000 cubic metres smashed into the village and left a slurry over 40ft deep. 

On its way, the slip destroyed a farm cottage, killing all the occupants. At Pantglas Junior School, immediately below the tip, children had just returned to their classes after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful at morning assembly. They were excited – it was the last day of school before the half-term holidays.  

A torrent of coal waste engulfed the school, part of the neighbouring county secondary school, and 20 village houses before it stopped. 144 people died, including 116 children aged between seven and 11, five teachers, and 23 local people, killed when their homes were engulfed.  

The colliery in Aberfan opened in 1869 and ran out of space for tips in the valley by 1916. The mine started putting coal waste on the mountainside above the village, and by 1966 there were seven tips with 2.7million cubic yards of colliery spoil. 

People knew that if the coal tip ever came down it would hit the school, and in 1963, Mr D C W Jones, a borough and waterworks engineer, wrote to his boss and the National Coal Board (NCB),  pointing out the risks. The correspondence is frustrating and can be read (here).  

Aberfan town council also contacted the NCB, remember this is a nationalised industry body under a Labour government, to express its safety concerns.  

The NCB not only ignored calls for remediation but, according to BBC News, it threatened the villagers’ livelihoods by suggesting if they made ‘a fuss … the mine would close’.  

Disaster followed and attracted international attention, but the Queen waited for eight days to visit Aberfan, a decision she reportedly later came to regret. 

An investigating tribunal was set up, chaired by Lord Justice Edmund Davies, that took evidence over 76 days, interviewed 136 witnesses, and examined 300 exhibits. 

The inquiry heard reports of five incidents at three tip sites between 1939 and 1965: At Cilfynydd Colliery near Pontypridd on December 5, 1939; at Aberfan Tip Number 4 on October 27, 1944; at Aberfan Tip Number 5 between 1947 and 1951; at Aberfan Tip Number 7 in November 1963; and at the redundant Ty Mawr Colliery in Rhondda on March 29, 1965. 

Walesonline revealed that 30 years after the disaster, a 1996 paper written for the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology called Rapid failures of colliery spoil heaps in the South Wales Coalfield identified 21 significant incidents over a period of 67 years to 1965. Luck, rather than prudent safety management on the NCB’s part, prevented previous loss of life.  

The inquiry findings were published on August 3, 1967, and the tribunal laid the blame squarely with the NCB. It concluded: ‘The Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above.’  

Shockingly, not a single NCB employee or board member was demoted, dismissed, or prosecuted, nor did the board face any corporate sanctions. There was no prosecution for manslaughter or for any regulatory offence, and the chairman, Lord (Alf) Robens, Labour peer,was reluctant to accept any wrongdoing.  

Prime Minister Harold Wilson kept him in post. Robens offered his resignation, but papers released decades later showed this was a sham and that he had been given assurances that his job was safe. Incredibly, he was subsequently appointed to chair a committee on Health and Safety Legislation (Robens Committee) 

In Aberfan: Government and Disaster, Professor Iain McLean offers an explanation. He wrote: ‘The NCB and its senior officers escaped scot-free because the governments of the late 1960s and early 1970s needed their help in the “high politics” of running down the coal industry without provoking a national strike.’  

The NCB initially refused to cover the costs of removing the remaining tips in Aberfan, because ‘experts’ confirmed that they ‘were safe.’ They were cleared in 1969 using government funding and a £150,000 ‘contribution’ drawn from an appeal fund set up to help the villagers. 

The Cabinet Office eventually acknowledged that there had been a great many errors in the Government’s handling of the aftermath   of Aberfan. It recognises that there was insufficient after care for victims, families, and friends. There has been no apology, however, for the coroner’s four-minute hearing into the 144 deaths that returned a blanket verdict of ‘accidental death.’ 

In October 2016, to mark the 50th anniversary of Aberfan,  Huw Edwards reminded readers of the Sunday Telegraph that this was ‘a man-made disaster’ and argued that it should have ‘profound relevance today’ – not just from a health and safety perspective, but because it touches ‘on issues of public accountability, responsibility, competence and transparency’. How right he was.  

He accused the media, specifically national newspapers, of failing to hold to account the state-owned NCB and its ‘high-handed chairman.’  He criticised the then Attorney-General, Elwyn Jones, who imposed restrictions on ‘speculation in the media about the causes of the disaster’

Edwards understood then that there was ‘a powerful parallel between the conduct and response of the NCB in 1966 and that of South Yorkshire police after Hillsborough in 1989’.  

In both instances, he said, the media allowed themselves to be spun by the institutions involved. He correctly identified their failure as ‘a classic case of gullibility and deference’ that led to a multiple betrayal of a whole community.  

Today, government is once again overreaching itself. ‘Experts’ are trying to persuade us to believe them and not our lying eyes; institutions that are designed to serve have grabbed the whip hand; and the MSM, including the previously clear-sighted Mr Edwards, is bought and paid for.  

Aberfan survives – it is in our thoughts. 

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Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop is a mediator.

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