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Aberfan

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At 9.15 am on Friday, October 21, 1966 a waste tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. It first destroyed a farm cottage in its path, killing all the occupants. At Pantglas Junior School, just below, the children had just returned to their classes after singing 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' at their assembly. It was sunny on the mountain but foggy in the village, with visibility about 50 yards. The tipping gang up the mountain had seen the slide start, but could not raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen. (The Tribunal of Inquiry later established that the disaster happened so quickly that a telephone warning would not have saved lives.) Down in the village, nobody saw anything, but everybody heard the noise. Gaynor Minett, an eight-year-old at the school, remembered four years later:

It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.

The slide engulfed the school and about 20 houses in the village before coming to rest. Then there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered that 'In that silence you couldn't hear a bird or a child'.

144 people died in the Aberfan disaster: 116 of them were school children. About half of the children at Pantglas Junior School, and five of their teachers, were killed.

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Mr. T. Ritchie

District Public Works Superintendent.

Reservoir House

Treharris

24th July, 1963

Dear Sir,

Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas School

In connection with the above Councillor Mrs. Williams has advised me that the National Coal Board appear to be taking slurry similar to that which was deposited and gave so much trouble in the Quarry at Merthyr Vale, up on to the existing tip at the rear of the Pantglas Schools.

If this is a true statement of the position then I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain.

Before writing to the National Coal Board I thought it would be advisable if you called to see the position for yourself and I will leave it to you to decide whether you call at the Merthyr Vale Colliery to see the manager before you pay the visit. If you do this it may be a good thing as the manager would probably decide to go with you and show you exactly what they are doing.

Yours faithfully,

D.C.W. Jones

Borough & Waterworks Engineer

www.nuff.ox.ac.uk

Early on the morning of Friday 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a subsidence of about 3-6 metres occurred on the upper flank of colliery waste tip No. 7. At 9:15am more than 150,000 cubic metres of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village, with visibility only about fifty metres. The tipping gang working on the mountain saw the landslide start, but were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen – although the official inquiry into the disaster later established that the slip happened so fast that a telephone warning would not have saved any lives.

The front part of the mass became liquefied and moved down the slope at high speed as a series of viscous surges. 120,000 cubic metres of debris were deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain, but a mass of over 40,000 cubic metres of debris smashed into the village in a slurry 12 metres (40 feet) deep.

en.wikipedia.org

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There were a series of coal tips on the mountain to the west of Aberfan where the mining waste was discarded. Tip 7 had been built on top of a spring, stopping water draining away over the surface. Beneath the tip, an impermeable layer of rock also prevented water draining through the earth.

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After heavy rain, the water level in the ground beneath the tip built up until it became saturated and unstable and eventually collapsed. Mineworkers arriving at the tip in the morning found the level of the tip had dropped overnight. One of them was sent down the mountain to report the problem and by the time the order was given to stop tipping, the level had dropped even further.

It is recognised that there was insufficient after care of victims, families and friends. Survivor guilt is now a recognised condition and grief counselling is offered to the bereaved and all involved in an incident. This was not the case in 1966. Men then were expected to bear their grief 'like men' and not show 'weakness'. Parents remarked that they only had to see the surviving children growing up to be constantly reminded of what they had lost.

Psychological and behavioural problems in surviving children, their parents and in other residents are still an issue today, such as fear of the darkness and heavy rain bringing back haunting memories

www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk

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I remember the Aberfan disaster very well but it's the first time I've read such a detailed account of it.

A very sobering reminder that although Health and Safety regulations may sometimes appear to be nannying us to an impossible degree, there's also a great deal of good come of them. You can barely imagine a situation these days, in these islands at least, where liquid slurry is tipped at the top of a hill behind a school in one of the wettest areas of the country.

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