Vintage: The Aberfan disaster, a catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in Wales, UK, on 21 October 1966
The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in Wales in the UK on 21 October 1966. In total, the disaster killed 144 people, 116 of whom were students at the Welsh town of Aberfan’s Pantglas Junior School. The tragedy, according to BBC News’ Ceri Jackson, was a “mistake that cost a village its children”; in the words of a tribunal commissioned to investigate the incident, the deadly accident “could and should have been prevented.” The tragedy in Aberfan would become one of the United Kingdom’s worst mining disasters and it was completely avoidable. On Friday 21 October 1966, 240 children aged 7 to 10 arrived at Pantglas Junior School, in Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. Then at 9h15am, hell was unleashed. The mountainous mining tip that overshadowed the village disintegrated, slid down the mountainside and swept at incredible speed across farms, the canal, railway embankment and into the heart of the village, including the Junior school. The 1,4 million cubic feet of murderous muck gave no time for warnings or escape that morning. It buried the school building until only the roof was visible; poured into the classrooms and killed 109 of the children and five teachers, through crushed skulls, multiple crush injuries and, in particular, asphyxiation. In a matter of seconds a generation died.
Aberfan is situated toward the bottom of the western valley slope of the Taff Valley, on the eastern slope of Mynydd Merthyr hill, approximately 6km south of Merthyr Tydfil. The Merthyr Vale Colliery was sunk on 23 August 1869 by John Nixon and partners. Aberfan is in an area of relatively high rainfall, an average of 1 500mm a year. In 1960 it was 1 790mm, the heaviest of recent years in the run-up to the disaster. Between 1952 and 1965, there was severe flooding in the Pantglas area of Aberfan on at least 11 occasions. Residents complained that the flood water was black and left a greasy residue when it receded. Complaints had been made by residents to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, who corresponded with the NCB between July 1963 and March 1964 on the topic of the “Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools”. In early 1965 meetings were held between the council and the NCB at which the Board agreed to take action on the clogged pipes and drainage ditches that were the cause of the flooding. No action had been taken by October 1966.
During the first three weeks of October 1966, there was 170mm of rainfall, nearly half of which was in the third week. During the night of 20-21 October 1966 the peak of Tip 7 subsided by 2,7 to 3m and the rails on which the spoil was transported to the top of the tip, fell into the resulting hole. The spoil movement was discovered at 7h30am by the first members of the morning shift manning the heaps. One of the workers walked to the colliery to report the slip; he returned with the supervisor for the tips and it was decided that no further work would be done that day but that a new tipping position would be decided on the following week.
At 9h15 am a significant amount of water-saturated debris broke away from tip 7 and flowed downhill at 18 to 34km/h in waves 6,1 to 9,1m high. GMJ Williams, a consultant engineer who gave evidence at the subsequent tribunal, stated that the 9h15am movement, “took part of the saturated material past the point where liquefaction occurred. This initially liquefied material began to move rapidly, releasing energy which liquefied the rest of the saturated portion of the tip and almost instantaneously the nature of the saturated lower parts of Tip No 7 was changed from that of a solid to that of a heavy liquid of a density of approximately twice that of water. This was 'the dark glistening wave' which several witnesses saw burst from the bottom of the tip.”
Approximately 110 000 m3 of spoil slid 640m down the mountain, destroying two farm cottages and killing the occupants. Around 38 000m3 travelled across the canal and railway embankment and into the village. The flow destroyed two water mains buried in the embankment and the additional water further saturated the spoil. Those who heard the avalanche said the sound reminded them of a low-flying jet or thunder.
The avalanche struck Pantglas Junior School on Moy Road, demolishing and engulfing much of the structure and filling classrooms with thick mud, sludge and rubble; 109 children, from 240 attendees and five teachers were killed in the school. The pupils of Pantglas Junior School had arrived only minutes earlier for the last day before the half-term holiday, which was due to start at 12h00pm. The adjacent secondary school was also damaged and 18 houses on surrounding roads were destroyed. Mud and water from the slide flooded other houses in the vicinity, forcing many to evacuate their homes. Once the slide material had come to a halt, it re-solidified. A huge mound of slurry up to 9,1m high blocked the area.
Some staff died trying to protect the children. Nansi Williams, the school meals clerk, used her body to shield five children, who all survived; Williams did not and was found by rescuers still holding a pound note she had been collecting as lunch money. Dai Beynon, the deputy headmaster, tried to use a blackboard to shield himself and five children from the slurry pouring through the school. He and all 34 pupils in his class were killed. When the avalanche stopped, so did the noise; one resident recalled that “in that silence you couldn't hear a bird or a child”.
Rescue efforts and retrieval of the bodies
After the landslide stopped, local residents rushed to the school and began digging through the rubble, moving material by hand or with garden tools. At 9h25am Merthyr Tydfil Police received a phone call from a local resident who said, “I have been asked to inform that there has been a landslide at Pantglas. The tip has come down on the school”; the fire brigade, based in Merthyr Tydfil, received a call at about the same time. Calls were then made to local hospitals, the ambulance service and the local Civil Defence Corps. The first miners from the Aberfan colliery arrived within 20 minutes of the disaster, having been raised from the coal seams where they had been working. They directed the early digging, knowing that unplanned excavation could lead to collapse of the spoil and the remnants of the buildings; they worked in organised groups under the control of their pit managers.
The first casualties from the wreckage of the school arrived at St Tydfil's Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil at 9h50am; the remaining rescued casualties all arrived before 11h00 am: 22 children, one of whom was dead on arrival and five adults. A further nine casualties were sent to the East Glamorgan General Hospital. No survivors were found after 11h00am.
The 10h30am BBC News summary led with the story of the accident. The result was that thousands of volunteers travelled to Aberfan to help, although their efforts often hampered the work of the experienced miners or trained rescue teams.
With the two broken water mains still pumping water into the spoil in Aberfan, the slip continued to move through the village, and it was not until 11h30 am that the water authorities managed to turn off the supply. It was estimated that the mains added between 9 to 14 million litres of water to the spoil slurry. With movement in the upper slopes still a danger, at 12h00 noon NCB engineers began digging a drainage channel, with the aim of stabilising the tip. It took two hours to reroute the water to a safer place, from where it was diverted into an existing water course.
A makeshift mortuary was set up in the village's Bethania Chapel on 21 October and operated until 4 November, 229m from the disaster site; members of the Glamorgan Constabulary force assisted with the identification and registration of the victims. Two doctors examined the bodies and issued death certificates; the cause of death was typically asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries. Cramped conditions in the chapel meant that parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify the bodies of their children. The building also acted as a missing persons bureau and its vestry was used by Red Cross volunteers and St John Ambulance stretcher-bearers. Four hundred embalmers volunteered to assist with the cleaning and dressing of the corpses; a contingent that flew over from Northern Ireland removed the seats of their plane to transport child-sized coffins. The smaller Aberfan Calvinistic Chapel nearby was used as a second mortuary from 22 to 29 October.
By the morning of Saturday 22 October, 111 bodies had been recovered, of which 51 had been identified. In the early afternoon light rain began falling, which became increasingly heavy; it caused further movement in the tip, which threatened the rescue work and raised the possibility that the area would have to be evacuated.
On 23 October assistance was provided by the Territorial Army. This was followed by the arrival of naval ratings from HMS Tiger and members of the King's Own Royal Border Regiment. A coroner's inquest was opened on 24 October to give the causes of death for 30 of the children located. One man who had lost his wife and two sons called out when he heard their names mentioned: “No, sir—buried alive by the National Coal Board”; one woman shouted that the NCB had “killed our children”. The first funerals, for five of the children, took place the following day. A mass funeral for 81 children and one woman took place at Bryntaf Cemetery in Aberfan on 27 October. They were buried in a pair of 24 m trenches; 10 000 people attended.
Because of the vast quantity and consistency of the spoil, it was a week before all the bodies were recovered; the last victim was found on 28 October.
In 1969, as a result of concerns raised by the disaster, and in line with the findings of the tribunal report, the government framed new legislation to remedy the absence of laws and regulations governing mine and quarry spoil tips. The long title of the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969 was “An Act to make further provision in relation to tips associated with mines and quarries; to prevent disused tips constituting a danger to members of the public and for purposes connected with those matters.”
Sources: The Smithsonian Magazine, Public Reading Rooms, British Pathé, History.com, BBC, Getty