The Aberfan Disaster

On the morning of 21st October 1966, above the small Welsh mining village of Aberfan an estimated 150,000 tonnes of colliery waste sited high on the mountain above the village slipped suddenly at 9.15am. Travelling at around 30ft per second, it first engulfed a farmhouse, killing all the occupants. Then it hit a disused canal- only to build up more power as it filled the empty canal.  Now mixed with masonry, boulders and trees the tip rose up in a giant wave, cascaded over an embankment, tore out two large water mains, demolished two rows of houses before glancing off the senior school and ploughing directly into Pantglas Junior School next door.

 

144 people died; 116 of them school-children, most perishing at their school desks.

 

Earlier that morning, the tip gang – those men charged with tipping 250 tons of colliery waste a day had reached the summit at around 7.25am. Their job was to receive the trams of waste that were hauled up from the colliery in journeys of ten– along a tramway- to the top where the they were attached to a crane and then upended and tipped. The crane had a lifting capacity of around 5 tons. As the tip gang reached Tip no. 7 and headed towards the crane, they noticed that the level in front of the crane had sun by around 10 feet and the rails were sticking out over the depression.

 

This was not itself unusual- depressions of 3 to 4 feet were common (which is why the crane driver – Gwyn Brown- was instructed to move the crane back when he finished his shift each day). However the depth and angle was thought unusual and the Chargehand – Les Davies- set off to report the matter (he had to walk back down the mountain to the colliery as the wires to the telephone in the engine house had been stolen 2 years ago and not been replaced). Meantime, one man was sent down into the hole to retrieve a metal plate.

 

When Les Davies reached the colliery he reported the depression to the unit mechanical engineer, Vivian Thomas. He told Davies to take an oxyacetylene welder to burn off the overhanging rails, pull the crane back and  - as of Monday- a new site would be chosen to commence tip No. 8. The instruction meant that – as of 8am – there was to be no more tipping on No. 7.

 

When Les Davies and the welder arrived back up the tip it was just before 9am and the hole had sunk by another 10-12 feet and two pairs of crane rails had snapped their bolts and fallen into the hole. They were about to retrieve the rails when they decided to have a cup of tea first and turned towards the tin hut they used for a shelter. All except Gwyn Brown- the crane driver- he remained on the tip looking into the hole:

 

‘Gwyn Brown didn’t move. He remained looking into the depression. Some hundreds of feet below the foot of the tip merged

into fields, which sloped down to the village, still enveloped in mist. He stood, just looking, and the tip moved.

 

The waste in the depression immediately before him started to rise up. He could not believe what he saw. The waste came up,

turned itself over like a breaking wave and poured away down the mountainside. “Good God boys come and have a look at this!”.

Gwyn Brown’s shout brought the men from the cabin… A second wave, this time liquid, and thirty feet across shot out of the centre

of the tip below them. It was as if it had been pushed out be a great force.

 

The tip sped down the mountainside 20 to 30 feet high, rolling in waves, disappearing into the mist. In a moment or two, from out of

the mist, came the sounds of voices and screams. One of the slingers thought it must be the children playing in the school-yard.

Leslie Davies thought of the farm cottages on the slope below the tip. He started running down the side of the tip shouting helplessly.

The others followed in a race against the sliding waste. Sometimes they got caught in the wet much flowing beside them, struggling

free to resum the run. Leslie Davies could not see where the material was going. The mist was too thick.

Tony Austin: Aberfan; the Story

of a Disaster

The subsequent Tribunal of Inquiry into the disaster (at 76 days it was, at the time, the longest inquiry in British history) found that the cause of the disaster was essentially due to Tip No. 7 having been tipped on top of an underground spring; something that had been described as ‘unknown’ and ‘unforeseeable’ by the National Coal Board in the days following the disaster.

 

However, as the Inquiry discovered, the spring and the unsuitable positioning of the tip was neither unknown, unknowable nor unforeseeable and that an inspection of the tips (there were 6 more above the village) had been ‘treated so cavalierly as to render [the] visit useless’.

 

There was no existing legislation to cover conditions above ground in 1966- only those below ground. However, the Tribunal found that this was no excuse for having no tipping policy. Further it found that reports, warnings and advice had gone unheeded; from recent and alarming tip slides (in Tymawr for example) to reports issued by the former owners of Merthyr Vale Colliery (Powell Dyffryn Company in 1939) to concerns expressed by Merthyr Council following complaints of flooding from the village- among whom was the headmistress of the school, killed in her study, along with some of her girls. In the days following the disaster, the NCB Chairman appeared on television saying that no-one had known about the spring underneath the tip. Almost immediately local people disputed this claim; including the Chargehand of the Tip Gang – Mr. Leslie Davies- who, when interviewed on television three days after the disaster by the broadcaster Fyfe Robertston, claimed that far from being unknown they all knew they had been tipping on top of a stream.

 

Robertson: “…the waste was actually tipped on top of the stream, is this true in your opinion?”

Davies: “Yes we have tipped on top of the stream, yes”

Robertson: “What do you say about the statement made… they they have discovered an unknown spring inside the tip…”?

Davies” “Well I don’t know about an unknown spring, that spring has been there ever since I’ve known it”.

 

Following the interview, Mr. Davies and the rest of the tip gang found themselves accused of causing the disaster from, amongst others, bereaved parents and in one regrettable incident the men were branded ‘murderers’. During the tribunal the chairman- Lord Edmund Davies was at pains to absolve the tipping gang from all blame.

 

Finally, and with some regret, the Tribunal did name nine men; to whom they attached varying degrees of 'blameworthiness'. They were for the most part engineers responsible for the positioning, maintenance, safety and inspection of the tips. Tip slides had occurred in the past (in fact Tip No. 7 and No. 4 had slipped before the disaster) and there was ample knowledge of how to ensure tip stability but essentially it had been ignored or the issue had been left to unqualified experts.

 

In truth, Civil Engineers were considered to be the experts on tip safety, yet the responsibility for the tip complex fell to the mechanical engineers who had little expertise in this area. Worse, when problems over the tips had come to light, personal relationships effectively prevented anything meaningful being done. In arguably the most telling passage from the Tribunal report (and the transcripts) is the moment when it is revealed that two of the engineers Robert Exley and David Roberts – a civil and mechanical engineer respectively- who were responsible for the area covering the disaster tip experienced such a ‘strained’ relationship that, between them “…they thwarted in Area No 4 the only attempt ever made at a general inspection of colliery tips…since 1947”

 

 

In its final report, the Tribunal said:

 

‘…the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were

totally unfitted, a failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains but decent men,

led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.

That, in all conscience, is a burden heavy enough for them to have to bear without the additional brand of villainy…’

 

Following a campaign by the village, the remaining 6 tips were cleared. However, in a bitter twist to the story, money earmarked to clear the remaining tips were- in part- taken from the Disaster Appeal Fund i.e. all the charitable donations sent to Aberfan from around the world. In Government documents (kept secret until 1997) it can be seen that a dispute erupted between the National Coal Board, the Treasury, the Welsh Office and the Prime Minister’s office about who would be the bearer of the cost. The Coal Board's estimate for clearing the tips was £3 million and the wrangling began. Finally the Coal Board agreed to pay £350,000, the Appeal fund would pay £150,000 (with little resistance from the Charity Commission) and the rest of the cost would be borne by the Exchequer (up to £1 million). Fortunately for them (and indeed the Coal Board) the initial estimate of £3 million was to shrink dramatically by over two-thirds and the final cost of clearing the tips was tendered at £850,000.

 

Given all that had happened, it is startling to read in official Treasury documents readily available to view at the National Archive in Kew the tone struck by the Treasury in July 1968, almost two years following the disaster:

 

‘I recognise that there might be some difficulty in bringing in the Appeal Fund. But if the residents attach such a

high priority to the clearance work… it is entirely appropriate that the Fund should join in with the government in

making a special contribution’

 

And a 'special contribution' was made by the village, who duly handed over the £150,000 - undoubtedly worn down not just by the external arguments but by the internal ones too. In truth, the village was divided: many simply didn't care how the remaining tips were removed- or where the money came from- wheras for others the demand for money added insult to injury. For them it was a point of principle: it was after all the National Coal Board who was liable and responsible for the tips in the first place so they should pay. The issue remained an open sore and a source of tension for many until 1997, when the money released from the Disaster Fund was finally returned by the then Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies.

 

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