Friday, 20 August 2010

The Aberfan Disaster

On our recent holiday to Scotland we came back through Wales and visited Aberfan. For those who are too young to remember, on Friday 21st October 1966 the collapse of a colliery spoil tip killed 116 school children and 28 adults.

There had been several days of heavy rain contributing to the landslide which destroyed a farm, twenty terraced houses and part of Pantglas Junior School. An eight year old pupil recalled

"It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes."

After the main landslide had stopped, frantic parents rushed to the scene and began digging through the rubble as best they could, some clawing at the debris with their bare hands, trying to uncover their children that had been buried alive. Police from Merthyr Tydfil soon arrived at the scene and took charge of the search-and-rescue operations. News spread locally and hundreds of people drove to Aberfan to try and help the resuce operation but their efforts were largely in vain. There was still a lot of water and mud still flowing down the slope, and the growing crowd of well meaning but untrained volunteers further hampered the work of the trained rescue teams who were arriving.
A few children were pulled out alive in the first hour, but no survivors were found after 11 a.m. that day.
By the following day around 2,000 emergency services workers and volunteers were on the scene, some of whom had worked continuously for more than 24 hours. Rescue work had to be temporarily halted during the day when water again began pouring down the slope, and because of the vast quantity and consistency of the landslide of slag it was nearly a week before all the children’s and adults bodies were able to be recovered.

The final death toll amounted to around half of the pupils at Pantglas Junior School and five of their teachers. The causes of death were typically found to be asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries – they were literally buried alive.

Following the investigation and tribunal into the disaster The National Coal Board was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child. Nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident, but no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted, and Lord Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions.

Today there is a cemetery devoted to graves of the victims, a memorial cross and a Garden of Remembrance which is laid out on the site of the school that was destroyed by the landslide. The Garden is beautiful and well kept as the photograph below shows but the emotional upwelling from being there can’t be described.