Friday 21st October 1966 was a normal October morning with a fine mist lying low in the valley of the Welsh village of Aberfan, close to Merthyr Tydfil. The children in Pantglas Primary School were settling down to their lessons. At 9AM the crew working at Tip number 7 on the slope above the village noticed that the tracks for their crane had been deformed by about 9 feet, drawing the conclusion correctly, that the waste tip of slag was becoming unstable.
There was no telephone so a worker started to run down the hill to report the problem, as those left at the top watched in horror as the tip slowly subsided another 6 feet.
The eyewitness testimony of the crane driver describes something that could come out of a Desmond Bagley novel. As he stood on the edge of the depression, he saw it rise up and begin to grow and grow at tremendous speed. The slag tip turned itself into a wave that went crashing down the hillside towards the village of Aberfan, which was so covered in mist. They couldn’t see it coming.
The man sent down to report the disaster was halfway down the hill when he heard the roar behind him. He heard trees cracking. Looking back, all he could see was a tsunami of black sludge and water. He kept running, he kept shouting, running blind as he couldn’t see anything due to the black spray. He heard someone shout ‘to get out of there’ and a hand of a colleague, who was on his way up to tip number 2, grabbed him and pulled him out the way to safety. The landslide had been almost upon him. They climbed up on to the old railway line, and when they looked down all they saw was blackness. The school had gone. The houses had gone. Their instinct was to go down and help but they couldn’t because the ground in front of them had transformed into a waterfall of dense black slurry.
The landslide moved over 100,000 cubic metres of spoil, it travelled at 35 kilometers per hour at its fastest, moving about half a kilometre down the hillside. Right in its path was the primary school and 16 houses. The disaster claimed 144 lives, 116 of them were the children from the school. The fatalities were mostly suffocation, the crush injuries of the weight of slurry on small rib cages and drowning as the landslide had ruptured a water main which caused a secondary more viscous but equally deadly threat.
One of the schoolboys had been outside in the playground when the slurry hit and he said you could hear it but you couldn’t see it. He said it was as if someone was flinging a barrage of stones at them, he ran away as fast as he could and he recalled something hitting him on the back of the head and then he was falling. When he woke up he was covered in pitch black, and when he was pulled from the waste he had lost an ear, he had two serious head wounds and the crush injuries were so bad on one hand he lost 3 fingers. Later he learned that he was trapped by his feet and was minutes away from drowning.
Only 4 of the teachers survived, they had all been in the corner of one room that kept standing. One said it was just as if a mountain of black had just tumbled right on top of the school and stayed there.
And of course in any disaster like this there are heroes. One of the dinner ladies, Nansi heard the noise and grabbed 5 children. The 5 kids were 7 years old and were standing in the corridor paying their dinner money. One of the girls remembers the glass at the top of the corridor caving in under what she thought was a big black monster. Nansi pulled the children together and jumped on top of them so the wall fell on top of her and the slurry moved over the top of the wall. Nansi died but all the 5 children survived.
The 50 year anniversary was commemorated last Friday with Prince Charles unveiling a plaque and a there was a minutes silence all over Wales. The surviving teachers rebuilt the school for the few remaining pupils. But it always be remembered as the small mining town with a missing generation.
The aftermath and the enquiry that followed about who was responsible was bitter and contrversial. The coal board in that area had a lot of local knowledge about the conditions of the hills and they were aware of the conditions that had caused slips in the past. They were found to be more at fault than the Board at national level who bore overall responsibility for the stability of the tips that consisted of the waste of the coal mining industry.
So like many of these things the only solace that came out of it was that lessons were learned and so it will never happen again.
Caro Ramsay 28 10 2016