Coal was the life-blood of industry in South Wales, with whole communities dependent on the top-quality steam coal found beneath the valleys and hills. One such was Aberfan, a village close to Merthyr Tydfil in the historic county of Glamorgan. Opened in 1875, Aberfan’s Merthyr Vale Colliery became the biggest pit in the South Wales Coalfield, generating huge quantities of waste.
For half a century this was dumped in spoil tips on the flanks of Merthyr Mountain, directly above Aberfan, with little thought given to the underlying geology. Unfortunately, this consisted of porous sandstone riddled with underground springs. One Friday morning in October 1966, subsidence occurred in Tip Number Seven after heavy rain, precipitating a slide of liquefied debris that flowed swiftly down the sunny mountainside towards the mist-shrouded village below, reaching a depth of 12 m (40 ft). It hit Aberfan and smashed into the Pantglas Junior School minutes after the pupils had assembled.
Everyone heard the ominous rumble, but the mist meant nothing could be seen. Before evasive action could be taken, the school was engulfed. Frantic villagers raced to the scene and started digging with their bare hands, soon joined by trained rescue personnel, but few children were pulled alive from the slurry. When the final death toll was known, 116 youngsters had perished, along with five teachers. There were further casualties in the village.
The aftermath was scandalous. Coal Board Chairman Lord Robens suggested that the disaster could not have been predicted – despite the fact that safety concerns had frequently been raised – and it took a lengthy public enquiry to apportion blame to the Coal Board. Worse still, the Board appropriated money from the disaster fund – generously subscribed by the public for victims and their families – to help pay for clearance of remaining tips.
When: October 21 1966
Where: Aberfan, Wales, UK
Death toll: 144 deaths
You should know: The Merthyr Vale Colliery was renovated and modernized at great expense in the 1960s, thus surviving the subsequent wave of mine closures in South Wales, but it never recovered from the miners’ strike in 1984-1985 and was closed in 1989.