17 October 2016

The Aberfan Disaster: a simple guide to what happened

Posted by dr-dave

The Aberfan Disaster: Aerial photograph from the east on the day of the disaster, image from the official tribunal

The Aberfan Disaster: Aerial photograph from the east on the day of the disaster, image from the official tribunal

The Aberfan Disaster: a simple guide to what happened

Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales, Britain’s worst landslide disaster in which 116 children and 28 adults were killed.  I will make a series of posts about the accident this week, but as a reference point I thought I would start by briefly reviewing the events of the day.  Much of this is drawn primarily from the official investigation.

The village of Aberfan

Aberfan is a small Welsh village close to Merthyr Tydfil, in an area that was a powerhouse for coal mining.  In 1966 the village was still dominated by mining, primarily in the adjacent Merthyr Vale colliery.  The waste from this mine was tipped in a series of slag heaps on the slopes above the Aberfan.  In the centre of the village, directly below one of the tips (Tip Number 7) was the Pant Glas Junior School.

On the day of the disaster, a crew arrived at Tip Number 7 to begin work at about 7:30 am. On arrival they noted that the tip had started to slide, with the track for their crane having deformed by about 3 metres.  Unfortunately they did not have a telephone, so were unable to report the problems quickly (a worker was sent down to report the problem), but they resolved to move the crane back from the edge of the slide and to sever the overhanging rails.  By 9 am the tip had subsided by another three metres.  The report provides first hand testimony from the tipping crew of what happened next.  These are the words of Gwyn Brown, the crane driver:

“I was standing on the edge of the depression. I was looking down into it, and what I saw I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was starting to come back up. It started to rise slowly at first. I still did not believe it, I thought I was seeing things. Then it rose up after pretty fast, at a tremendous speed. Then it sort of came up out of the depression and turned itself into a wave — that is the only way I can describe it — down towards the mountain . . . towards Aberfan village . . . into the mist.”

And these are the words of Leslie Davies, the charge-hand:

“When [Gywn Brown] shouted, we all got to the top of the tip and all I can tell you is it was going down at a hell of a speed in waves. I myself ran down the side of No. 3 tip all the way down towards No. 2 and No. 1 tip on the side. As I was running down, I heard another roar behind me and trees cracking and a tram passing me. I stopped — I fell down in fact. All I could see was waves of muck, slush and water. I still kept running . . . I kept going down shouting. I couldn’t see, nobody could. And I heard a voice answer me and he shouted, ‘Come out of there, for God’s sake’. That man was Trevor Steed . . . I went with Trevor Steed down on to the old railway line. By that time my mates had come down with me, behind me. We went along the line as far as we could towards the school, which we could see. All the houses were down. We could not pass that way because there was too much water rushing down . . . we could not go the way we wanted to go.”

The landslide involved about 105,000 cubic metres of spoil, which travelled at 17 to 34 km/h over a distance of about 500 metres.  The landslide struck and engulfed 16 houses and Pant Glas Junior School.  In total the Aberfan Disaster claimed 144 lives, and injured a further 35 people, most of them children.

The Aberfan Disaster: View of the slope three hours after the disaster. Shows flow-slide with central mud-run, image from the official tribunal

The Aberfan Disaster: View of the slope three hours after the disaster. Shows flow-slide with central mud-run, image from the official tribunal

The event was marked by haunting photography of the miners desperately digging through the waste in the destroyed school to try to save the children.  However, the chances of surviving burial in this sort of landslide is low; the last survivor was recovered less than two hours after the accident.

In my next post I will describe the appalling actions by the National Coal Board.  The Official Report is deeply critical of them, both in terms of their actions prior to the disaster and in terms of the way they approached the tribunal investigation the Aberfan disaster.

On the former point the report states:

While doubtless officials of the South Western Division, with their local knowledge and their awareness of slips which had actually occurred in the past, were more at fault, we cannot escape the conclusion that the Board must at national level also be blamed for its neglect of the stability of tips….Theirs was the overall responsibility for the initiation of policy, which involved that at national level there should have been due consideration of the proper methods to dispose of the waste of the coal-mining industry.

With regard to their approach to the tribunal:

On the other hand, if it really be the case that those with expert knowledge advising the National Coal Board had, even before the Inquiry began, come to the conclusion that the Board was to blame for the disaster — and that is precisely what Mr Piggott under cross-examination admitted…it is vastly to be regretted that the Board did not make this clear at the outset.