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Aberfan – a disaster that should never have happened

By Sasha O’Neil

Aberfan – it’s a name as resonant with tragedy for working class people in South Wales as Hillsborough is for Liverpool. For many the horror is all the greater because 116 of the 144 who died were young children. Like Hillsborough, Aberfan was a disaster that need never have happened.

The coal waste tips that towered above Aberfan were a common feature of the Valleys, but the local children playing here noticed that the tip above their school was shifting ten yards a year.

Adults noticed too. On 24 July 1963, over three years before the disaster, the borough engineer, DCW Jones wrote to the local official in charge, “…the National Coal Board (NCB) appear to be taking slurry similar to that which… gave so much trouble in the quarry at Merthyr Vale, up on to the… tip at the rear of the Pantglas Schools… I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain.”
DCW Jones wrote urgent warnings to an array of officials as the months passed. Meetings were held – and deferred – as individuals went on holiday. Decisions were put off. The tips still loomed and shifted.

One letter is headed, “Danger from coal slurry being tipped at the rear of Pantglas School, Aberfan”.

The colliery manager writes: “A satisfactory and suitable place other than the tip… eludes me at the moment…”

In another letter we read: “We would not like to continue beyond the next six to eight weeks in tipping on the mountain side where it is likely to be a source of danger to Pantglas School.”

A culvert was repaired, but the slurry kept coming. Then, at 9.15am on 21 October 1966, a huge portion of the tip broke away and rushed like a tsunami down on Pantglas Primary School, where morning lessons had just begun.

Michael Sztucki was in the first form of the senior school: “I can remember the morning very well. It was wet and foggy. You could see only about five yards in front of you. I was in the senior school – the first form. There was a doorway we used to stand in before school. “We were standing there when we heard a noise – not really loud, loud – but it was like a crashing sound. We thought, “Oh, the trams have fallen off the lines”, because the trams used to be pulled to the top of the tip with all the muck from the pit.

“Someone came round and said, ‘The school has fallen down’ and we thought, ‘Oh, great. The school has fallen down.’ We had no idea what it was. But we went 30 or 40 yards and then we could see this huge mound of slurry. I remember standing in front of it, looking – and it was as high as the very top of a two story house. The slurry had taken the front of the senior school away and it was just standing there like a cliff face. There was so much water coming down, it was like a river coming through it. A few of the lads that used to do the milk were at the entrance and they lost their lives.

“From the senior school, there was a street of houses and then there was the junior school. We couldn’t cross to it, because there was so much water. We didn’t even know the junior school had been taken out.”

Michael’s brother, John, – who grew up to be a miner at Tower Colliery – was in the third form at the senior school: “There was a group of us in the playground – six or seven of us – waiting for the bell to go. It was so foggy you couldn’t see ten yards. We heard this horrible roaring noise and we thought a jet airplane was about to crash into the mountain. We climbed out over the wall of the school up onto the old railway line. There was all this muck – ooze – flowing below it.

“Between the canal bank and the railway line ran a crevasse, about 50 metres deep at one end, tapering off to almost nothing in front of the primary school. Our school had the crevasse in front of it, so a lot of the muck went in and more or less filled that. Whereas the primary school was covered.

“We couldn’t get there because of the muck coming down. We could just make out through the fog where the houses should have been between the two schools, but they weren’t there any more. There was just total confusion.

Michael: “I tried to get home, because my house was just down the bottom of the hill from the school, but there was like a river going down. So we went the long way round. I crossed this bridge – and there were people running around everywhere. It was only then we heard that the junior school had had it.

“I went closer and had a look and there was just pandemonium. It was chaos – pretty much a panic. Only then we sort of realised what had happened. You could see people bringing out bodies.

“Initially when the tip came down, they reckon it was moving about 30 miles an hour. When it hit the school it sort of ran out of momentum. I remember standing there and looking at this wall of mud. Then somebody came and moved us along, because the tip had started moving again, creeping slowly down.

“At that stage, the hill that went down from the school was still there. There were houses on that hill and the tuck shop – they hadn’t been touched. If somebody had knocked all those houses and got the people out, they would have been ok. I reckon it was probably an hour until the tip came the rest of the way down. But nobody did and some of them lost their lives. I remember somebody saying that the guy that owned the tuck shop – he got engulfed in it. If somebody had gone and got him out of there… But it was just organised chaos. Nobody really knew what anybody was doing. In the end, the slurry came down almost to the bottom of the hill.

“What made it worse was nobody could work out what was happening. You were looking at this wall of mud, but you couldn’t see it clearly because it was so foggy – and there was a lot of water coming down, a hell of a lot of water.

John: “The miners were called out of all the local collieries – Merthyr Vale, Deep Navigation, Taff Merthyr, Abercynon. My father was one of them. They were all up on the school trying to shift this muck out of the way. People who were known to live in Aberfan were called out of their workplaces to go home immediately.

“One of my best friends was one of the lucky ones who were dug out. He was buried up to his neck in slurry. I was in a little gang of friends and we realised that half of us – six or seven – were gone.”

In the valleys all around people left work, grabbed a shovel and rushed to Aberfan to help the emergency services with the rescue effort. Less welcome were the hordes of journalists. The attention of the world was on South Wales, but Lord Robens, the head of the NCB, went along to his installation that afternoon as Chancellor of Surrey University. He didn’t show up in Aberfan until the evening of the following day.

Like other heads of nationalised industries, Robens had a boss’s arrogance – and a Daimler, an executive aeroplane and a flat in Belgravia to go with it. When he finally reached the site, he denied that anything could have been done to prevent the disaster. He told the press “natural unknown springs” had brought down the tip. Only at the end of the 76 day enquiry did the Coal Board admit responsibility.

Michael Sztucki explained, “Everyone knew the water on the tip was a problem. We used to go up on the mountain and play in the mud in our wellies. It was like a swamp. I can remember vividly a couple of years prior to this when part of the tip came half way down the mountain. So, there had been a slide before. In between the tip and the school there was this treed area. We used to call it the jungle. We always used to go up there and one day we said – ‘Oh, look. The tip have come down.’

“There were about twelve tips in all up there. Some had been there for donkeys years – they even had grass growing over them. The very first tip that was right up on top of the mountain used to smoke. We called it the smoking tip. As they were making more tips over the years, they kept coming further down and down the mountain where the slope was steeper. The one that fell on the school was a lot closer. So, when you really look at it, it was just a matter of when, I suppose.

“I remember the rain had just rained and rained and rained – and that’s what it was apparently. There was an underground stream and that’s what dislodged the tip and brought it down.

“I reckon another thing which played a part in what happened: above the school there was a canal bank and the railway line. Years ago that’s where the canal used to come from the iron works in Dowlais. The canal hadn’t been in use for years. It was dry. Between the old railway line and the canal bank was a deep valley. So, when the tip came down, it had to go over those two valleys, which took a huge part of the impact of the tip away. If it wasn’t for the canal bank and the valley I reckon that the school and half the village would have gone.

“I’ve looked at the aerial shot of where the tip came down. I never realised until I looked at the photograph how close it was to where we were in the doorway. If it wasn’t for that crevasse widening the tip would have taken out the whole senior school as well.”

The Davies Tribunal concluded that the NCB’s liability was “incontestible and uncontested”, but no one was sacked or prosecuted – and Robens refused to allow the NCB to remove the tips above Aberfan.

Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused Robens’ resignation. Robens was carrying out huge cuts to the coal industry without any major strikes – something the Tories could never have managed. Perhaps Wilson felt he couldn’t afford to let him go.

The NCB paid out a total of £160,000 compensation (just over £2 million today), and the Aberfan Disaster Fund raised £1.75 million. Wilson’s government raided that fund to help pay the costs of removing the tips – money that was only returned after Labour’s win in 1997.

Michael: “A couple of my friends – they lived up in Bryn Taff half a mile away. They used to walk to school along the canal bank. My one friend and two of his friends were walking to school and they got engulfed by the slurry. My friend didn’t get killed, the other two did – right in front of his eyes. I’ve known him for years and never ever would he ever talk about it. People just don’t talk about it.

“In those days there was no counselling – that’s just the way it was – but I don’t think people knew how to deal with it. The kids I used to play with – one minute we were playing out in the street and the next minute half of us – the half that were younger – were gone.

“If it happened today, I reckon they would have had the people responsible up on manslaughter, but I think everybody just worried in case they closed the pit down. The headmistress actually made a complaint about the tip before it ever happened, but she was hushed up, because if she made too much of a complaint, they would close the pit down and too many people would lose their jobs. There was negligence at the highest scale really.”

Today the 50th anniversary commemorations shun any mention that Aberfan was not an accident. That is a grave mistake, because the tip would not have fallen had there been legal regulations for siting, constructing and maintaining it.

In the aftermath of Aberfan, the National Union of Mineworkers and other trade unionists redoubled their efforts to win a culture of “safety first” in industry and the wider community. Those safeguards are now under threat from Tory cuts – egged on by a press that ridicules “health and safety gone mad”. Our memory of Aberfan must keep us vigilant.