In Depth

Aberfan disaster: what happened in Wales 53 years ago

Country remembers the 116 children and 28 adults killed when 150,000 tonnes of coal waste fell on village school

Exactly 53 years ago today, 116 children and 28 adults died when a mountain of coal waste collapsed on to the mining village of Aberfan, in Wales.

A build-up of water in the heap of rock and shale caused it to suddenly slide downhill as slurry. An inquiry found the National Coal Board (NCB) wholly to blame and it was ordered to pay compensation for loss and personal injury – a ruling that was disputed until 1997.

A BBC documentary, Aberfan: The Fight for Justice, broadcast in 2016, underlined the negligence of the NCB and its chair, Lord Robens, who died in 1999, in particular. “Aberfan happened because of a mix of negligence, arrogance and incompetence for which no individual was punished or even held to account,” said presenter Huw Edwards.

What happened?

For the 50 years before 1966, millions of tons of mining debris from the Merthyr Vale Colliery were deposited on the side of Mynydd Merthyr, directly above Aberfan.

On 21 October 1966, at 9.15am, after several days of heavy rain, 150,000 tonnes of the waste broke away from the tip and flowed downhill at high speed, picking up more debris as it moved.

The mountain of slurry covered the village within a few minutes. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were inundated and its young pupils and teachers died from either impact or suffocation.

A few survivors were pulled from the rubble, but no one was recovered alive after 11am that day.

A “generation of children has been wiped out”, declared George Thomas, secretary of state for Wales from 1968 and 1970.

Who was to blame?

NCB lawyers argued the disaster was caused by a “critical geological environment” and said there was no way of foreseeing the slide.

However, the dangers of tipping waste on wet mountain sides were well-known and eventually, under cross-examination, Lord Robens acknowledged the board’s responsibility for the disaster.

But the NCB and the Treasury refused to accept full financial responsibility and the Aberfan Disaster Fund had to contribute £150,000 towards removing the remaining tip that overlooked the village.

This was finally repaid by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997.

What is at the site now?

A memorial garden was reopened on the site of Pantglas School earlier this month after a £500,000 renovation.

David Davies, chair of Aberfan Memorial Charity, told a crowd of 200 people on the day of the reopening that “the world has not forgotten Aberfan”.

He continued: “The memorial garden will continue to be a place to visit, a tranquil place to pause and reflect.

“I know a lot of people can't go to the cemetery here in Aberfan and that includes the surviving teachers because it’s too painful. But many come here to the garden instead to remember and lay wreaths on the anniversary.”

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