Bizarre Disaster Kills 144 in Wales, Mostly Children

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A Brief History

On October 21, 1966, at 9:15 in the morning, the little Welsh village of Aberfan was the scene of a bizarre disaster that combined natural and man-made elements that resulted in the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults.  The event, known as “The Aberfan Disaster,” was caused by the sudden failure of a “spoil tip” at the local coal mining yard.

Digging Deeper

(For those unfamiliar with such lingo, a “spoil tip,” also known as a “culm bank,” “boney pile,” or “gob pile,” is a waste area where the unwanted residue of coal mining operations is piled up and out of the way, usually consisting of various types of rock such as shale or carboniferous sandstone and other stuff.  Such a dump may also be referred to as a “slag heap,” although, oddly enough, there is usually no slag in the heap!)

In the Aberfan mining operation, the spoil tip was unfortunately located above an underground spring that oozed water into the pile of residue.  In fact, Aberfan had 7 such piles of mining waste, with the deadly spoil tip designated as #7.  Heavy rains added to the already moisture laden mixture, and gravity did the rest, causing the massive amount of 140,000 cubic yards (almost half the content of the pile) of sludge to slide down the hill it was located on onto the unsuspecting villagers below.  Greatly compounding the disaster was the fact that the Pantglas Junior School was directly in the path of the down rushing spoil, and the main building was demolished by the terrific force of the mud and rock.  As you might guess, school was in session at the time, and 109 students were killed in the schoolhouse (out of the 240 pupils present), along with 5 of their teachers.  Another 29 children and 6 adults at the school were injured.

Witnesses to the disaster rushed to aid victims, trying to dig through the viscous mess with hand tools and garden tools, while local fire, police and rescue teams from nearby Merthyr Tydfil responded to the emergency.  By 11 am the last of the living survivors had been rescued, and all victims found after that time were dead.  In addition to the school, the local village residential area was also hit with the landslide, and a couple small homes were destroyed, killing the occupants.  A total of about 18 homes were destroyed, and a second school building damaged.

Investigation of the incident revealed that workers were aware of the dangerous situation, and a decision to avoid adding any refuse to spoil tip #7 was made a couple hours prior to the disaster.  The giant tsunami of mud and rock was found to be about 20 to 30 feet high and moving at a speed of between 11 and 21 miles per hour.  Witnesses described the terrible sound of the disaster as resembling the roar of a jet plane or continuous thunder.  Some of the adults at the school had apparently willingly sacrificed themselves to try to save children.  A notable such effort was performed by Nansi Williams, an adult meals clerk, who shielded 5 kids from the horrible sludge, losing her own life but saving those 5 children.  Other brave adults were unable to save the children they tried to protect.

The investigative board found the National Coal Board (NCB), the organization responsible for supervising the spoil tips at the mining operation, to be at fault for the tragedy, specifically 9 members of the Board.  No person was prosecuted criminally, nor was the NCB fined or sanctioned.  No employees were fired or demoted!  Numerous residents later developed a variety of illnesses, mostly mental/emotional in nature, and many were found to be suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Another bizarre twist to this sad tale is that when a memorial fund was set up to assist the survivors and families of the deceased, the government seized £150,000 of the £1.75 million in donations that had poured in to go toward the cost of clean-up.  This outrage was addressed in 1997 when that sum was restored to the memorial fund by the government. Over 88,000 people had originally donated to the fund, with later donations added even many years later.

Of course, safety practices regarding spoil tips were instituted and new laws and regulations were enacted, but senior members of the NCB were conspicuously absent from the list of those blamed for the disaster.   A 1997 academic review of the tragedy revealed that the NCB “spin doctored” the story of the tragedy into their version of events.  Of course, the disaster generated some backlash against the reliance on coal as a fuel and resulted in a campaign against nuclear power plants and the continued use of coal by industry and NCB operatives to fight the anti-coal reaction.  Another weird aspect to this particular incident was the initial refusal of Queen Elizabeth II to visit the scene!  Facing incredulous criticism for not seeing first hand such a notable disaster, the Queen sent her husband to Aberfan.  Public pressure finally force Elizabeth to go to Aberfan in person only 8 days later.  Information that warnings about the spoil tip being located above the school had been ignored.

The horrible events surrounding the Aberfan Disaster make the case for government oversight of industrial and mining operations in spite of the frequent hue and cry of “libertarians” such as Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky) in the US that advocate a sort of corporate anarchy that allows mining operations (among others) to do what they want without government regulation because presumably those companies will “do the right thing” because of economic incentive.  Wow is that a stupid idea!!!  Industry, especially the coal mining industry, has proven again and again that not only will it ignore common sense and legal safeguards, but it will purposely risk the safety of their workers and the environment to squeeze every possible penny of profit out of an operation.  If you agree with Rand Paul and the anti-regulators, please feel free to state your views in the comments section below this article in a rational way.  Maybe you could change our views, who knows?  Just be sure to convince those survivors of Aberfan…

Question for students (and subscribers): Should mining officials or NCB members been prosecuted for the Aberfan Disaster?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Austin, T. Aberfan ; the Story of a Disaster. Hutchinson, 1967.

Madgwick, Gaynor. Aberfan: A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britan’s Worst Disasters. Y Lolfa, 2017.

McClean, Iain. Aberfan: Government and disasters. Welsh Academic Press, 2000.

The featured image in this article, an aerial photograph by an unknown government photographer of the spoil tips on the above Aberfan shortly after the disaster, is in the public domain because it is a mere mechanical scan or photocopy of a public domain original, or – from the available evidence – is so similar to such a scan or photocopy that no copyright protection can be expected to arise. The original itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain.

This is because it is one of the following:

  1. It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
  2. It was published prior to 1969; or
  3. It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1969.

HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply)
More information.

See also Copyright and Crown copyright artistic works.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.