When one hears the word avalanche, chances are it might evoke the image of James Bond or the Milk Tray man skiing down the impossibly pristine white slope of an Alpine mountain while a powdery cloud tumbles down towards him; we know he’ll evade it at the last moment, but the excitement of watching him do so is complimented by the picturesque glacial vista surrounding him. An avalanche tends not to be associated with an obscene, oily, swampy slurry as black as a hole in space that swallows the infants school of a Welsh mining village, killing 116 of its pupils as well as 28 adults; but that was the avalanche that wreaked inconceivable horrors half-a-century ago today.
Like the Moors Murderers and England winning the World Cup, Aberfan was one of those headlines from the year before I was born that my formative years were lived in the shadow of, relayed to me by my parents as a landmark moment of the recent past that I hadn’t experienced. Aberfan first made itself known to me when I joined a few pals at impromptu mountaineering as we stumbled upon a colossal ebony peak next to a decrepit Sunday League football ground my dad’s team were playing at. Roped along on an unappetising day out, discovering this unexpected challenge was a short-lived adventure; the huge slag heap that must have been connected to a neighbouring pit was one my mother hastily called us down from as she pointed out the danger by briefly summarising what had happened on October 21 1966.
To be fair, briefly summarising those events may do the people involved a severe disservice, but the events remain so appalling that it sometimes seems the only way one can actually accept them is by skimming through them as quickly as possible; to go into great detail is to document such a tragic disaster that one almost doesn’t even want to contemplate it. The madness of the scenario before that immense mountain of debris collapsed and careered downhill in a lethal landslide was so clearly an accident waiting to happen, yet the National Coal Board had spent fifty years depositing its excavated waste from the Merthyr Vale Colliery upon the steep hill that towered over the village of Aberfan. It was industry practice, and it would appear those who ran the industry never once considered the likelihood of an avalanche as the tip continued to grow to frightening proportions.
The villagers themselves as well as some of their council representatives had made various approaches to the NCB about the potential threat of the spoil heap above their village in the early 60s, though nothing was done. A gradual build up of water in the rock and shale that constituted the tip had made it increasingly unstable by 1966, dumped as it was on top of porous sandstone with springs beneath it. Heavy rain leading up to the morning of October 21 exacerbated an already perilous situation and at 9.15am, saturated debris began to slide down the hill, gathering speed as it headed towards the oblivious Aberfan.
With the village drenched in fog that rendered visibility of the high ground surrounding it nonexistent, nobody saw anything until it was too late; they heard the terrifying noise of it, alright, but the pace of the awesome avalanche was so fast that those in its path would have required a superhuman response to escape it. By the time it hit the village, debris measuring 1,400,000 cubic feet had become a 40 foot-deep slurry that enveloped a farm and a row of terraced homes before burying Pantglas Junior School in suffocating sludge and rubble.
Water and mud continued to pour into the village even when the landslide itself reached its destination and the villagers desperately rushed to the ruin of the school to dig out the trapped children, creating a uniquely awful set of circumstances that made the terrible task even harder. Within hours, hundreds had descended upon Aberfan to help, but nobody was pulled out of the wreckage alive after 11am, just one hour and forty-five minutes from the beginning of the avalanche. Whilst the world watched on, a heroic rescue attempt was ultimately fruitless, and it took a full week before all the bodies had been recovered. When the full scale of the loss of life emerged, and the fact that almost an entire generation of the village’s children had been wiped out in one devastating blow, the inquest into the causes of the disaster began.
This was when the National Coal Board embarked upon a shameless face-saving exercise that has horribly familiar echoes with the way in which the South Yorkshire Police attempted to evade responsibility for Hillsborough twenty-three years later. NCB Chairman Lord Robens was especially insensitive, provoking the fury of the bereaved families; even when the NCB were found to be entirely culpable, Robens was reluctant to accept the verdict. The NCB shelled out £160,000 in compensation, but further salt was rubbed into the wound when some of the money raised in an appeal fund for the community was used to finally remove the tips from above Aberfan, a belated necessity that either the NCB or the Government should have paid for had they been in possession of any decency.
The children that survived the catastrophe lived with survivors’ guilt and mental disorders for decades, and the resentment of families that had lost children towards those whose children lived soured relations in the village for years. Aberfan was a man-made disaster that could have been averted, but the appalling negligence of the National Coal Board has been repeated in other industrial disasters in other parts of the world, particularly the Bhopal Disaster of 1984. When profit comes at the expense of human lives, there are few more unacceptable faces of capitalism.
© The Editor