On this day in history….21st October 1966

On this day in history : 21st October 1966 – A coal-slag heap slides downhill and engulfs the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, including the village school…. 144 people are killed, 116 of whom are children….

Aerial photograph of Aberfan following the disaster – Fair use

It was a Friday and the last morning before the school broke up for half term…. It was raining, hard and relentlessly, as it had been for days and days before…. At 9.10am the 240 children of Pantglas Junior School, who had been gathered for morning assembly, filed into their classrooms – a few late stragglers were still in the playground…. At 9.15am a large section of the coal spoil heap, that towered domineeringly on the hillside above, broke away and began to avalanche towards the village beneath…. Tons and tons of black sludge engulfed the school, along with a row of terraced cottages and a farm….

Numerous complaints had been made regarding the safety of the seven gigantic coal spoil heaps over the years – including a petition from the school itself in 1963…. But the National Coal Board took no notice…. Matters were not helped by the quarter-of-a-mile high heaps being built on ground riddled with natural springs…. With the constant rain the heaps had become completely saturated….

At first the rescue operation was hampered by thick fog…. Eventually though there were some 2,000 rescuers, many of them local miners, working non-stop to free survivors…. All the while the slag heap was still shifting…. In one classroom 14 bodies were found; in another the school dinner lady was discovered, clutching 5 children to her, trying to protect them – all had perished…. In all 116 children aged between 7 and 10 years old had died; 28 adults were also killed, 5 of them teachers at the school…. Many of the dead had died from suffocation; it was a week before the last body was recovered….

The rescue operation – Fair use

The National Coal Board blamed the abnormal rainfall, claiming it had caused the coal waste to move…. A later inquiry found the NCB solely to blame – and ordered that compensation should be paid…. However, the NCB refused to accept full financial responsibility – and would only do the minimum to make the remaining slag-heaps safe…. It was only after an additional grant from the government and a contribution of £150,000 (almost 10% of the value) from the relief fund that had been raised by the public, that the heaps were finally removed…. The enforced use of the relief fund money caused national outrage…. In comparison the NCB paid out compensation equating to just £500 per child’s life lost – for what had been a totally preventable tragedy….

The Queen and Prince Philip travelled to Aberfan on the 29th of October, to pay their respects – the Queen visited four times altogether…. In May 1997 Her Majesty and the Duke planted a tree in Aberfan Memorial Garden…. The children are buried high on the hillside in Aberfan Cemetery….

Image credit – Llywelyn2000 at Welsh Wikipedia CC BY 3.0