Half a century ago a collapsing coal mine spoil-tip took 144 lives, mostly young children, and carved the name Aberfan on the heart of a nation. PETER FROST tells the harrowing story.
THE CORONER was doing his best. He knew what the Establishment wanted — the usual mining disaster whitewash.
Although the Aberfan disaster had taken the lives of 116 children and 28 parents, teachers and villagers rather than actual working miners, his job was the same, to hide the real cost of coal — human lives.
He read out one of the child victim’s names and proposed his usual verdict — “Death by asphyxia and multiple injuries.”
The child’s father rose to his feet and addressed the court. “No, sir,” he declared, “buried alive by the National Coal Board.” The coroner knew what he had to do. “I know your grief is so much that you may not be realising what you are saying,” he said.
The father would not be fobbed off. He repeated: “I want it recorded — buried alive by the National Coal Board. That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.” The public gallery rose in support, some shouted: “Murderers.”
The Aberfan disaster occurred at 9.15am on October 21 1966 when a 40,000 cubic metre unstable colliery spoil-tip suddenly started to slide downhill.
Debris buried the village in minutes. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately covered; young children and teachers died from impact or suffocation.
A few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, a few hours later and the school would have broken up for half-term.
After the main landslide, frantic parents rushed to the scene and began digging through the rubble, some clawing at the debris with their bare hands, trying to uncover buried children.
A large amount of water and mud was still flowing down the slope as a growing crowd of untrained volunteers arrived at Aberfan to help the work of the trained rescue teams arriving at the scene.
Hundreds of miners from local collieries rushed to Aberfan. Miners arrived from all across South Wales, many in open lorries with shovels already in their hands.
Very few children were rescued alive in the first hour, but no survivors were found after 11am.
By the next day, 2,000 emergency services workers and volunteers were on the scene, some of whom worked continuously for more than 24 hours. It would be nearly a week before all the bodies were recovered.
The final death toll was 144. In addition to five of their teachers, 116 of the dead were children between the ages of seven and 10 — almost half of the children at the Pantglas Junior School.
The chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB) at the time of the disaster was Lord Robens of Woldingham (below). His actions immediately after the Aberfan disaster were a disgrace.
When word of the Aberfan disaster reached him, Robens did not immediately go to the scene. He was too busy being invested as Chancellor of the University of Surrey. He didn’t reach Aberfan until the evening of the following day.
NCB officers lied for their boss. They announced that Robens was personally directing the relief work when he wasn’t even at Aberfan.
When he finally did arrive, Robens wasn’t slow to start the whitewash. He blamed the slide on unknown springs beneath the tip. In fact the NCB had been tipping on top of well-known springs that were clearly marked on maps of the neighbourhood and where villagers had played as children.
Robens’s evidence to the Tribunal of Inquiry was so unsatisfactory that even counsel for the NCB asked for it to be ignored. Throughout, Robens took a very narrow view of the NCB’s responsibilities. He opposed doing anything to make the remaining tips safe.
Only when the government extracted £150,000 from the fund that had been donated by the public for the victims did Robens agree to use that money for the removal of other tips that threatened the village.
The use of a tenth of the money donated by the public for the victims of the disaster being spent by the NCB to move unsafe tips was bitterly opposed and much resented by the villagers and indeed by the public who had given the money.
Not until 1997 did the incoming Labour government return that money to the fund for the villagers.
A 1967 tribunal found that the blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board. Robens made a dramatic appearance to give testimony. He reluctantly conceded that the National Coal Board had been at fault. The NCB finally and reluctantly paid out £160,000 in compensation: just £500 for each dead child, plus a little money for traumatised survivors and for damaged property.
Nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident. However, no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted. Lord Robens and the entire board of the NCB retained their positions.
In 1997 the British Public Records Office released previously embargoed documents that revealed that the Charity Commission considered whether to insist that before any payment was made to bereaved parents, each case should be reviewed to ascertain if the parents had been close to their dead children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally.
The Commission also threatened to remove the Trustees of the Disaster Fund or fine them if they paid grants to parents of children who had not been physically injured that day. The Trustees were thus forced to abandon payments to children deeply traumatised but not physically hurt.
In 2005, Imperial Tobacco settled out of court to end a wrongful dismissal suit brought against the company by Aberfan survivor Janice Evans, who had been employed by Imperial’s Rizla cigarette paper factory near Pontypridd.
Janice had been sacked after she refused to continue working night shifts. It was working nights which had brought on flashbacks of her ordeal in 1966 when she had been buried waist-deep in the landslide while walking to school. Although Evans survived, a friend who had been walking with her was killed.
The history of the coal industry in Britain has far too many pit disasters engraved on its role of honour, but none is as tragic and sad as those events that happened at Aberfan exactly fifty years ago.
Five decades on, it is important to remember and pay tribute to the innocent children who died in this totally avoidable disaster. But let’s never forget the guilty men who, in the search for even more profit, let it happen.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 21 October 2016.