The BlogFather – 09:13 21/10/66 – Remembering Aberfan
Growing up, I never really knew or understood tragedy on a greater scale. I had seen my own share of pain and family tragedy but it wasn’t until I was eleven when I saw tragedy from afar; the Dunblane massacre sent shock waves across Scotland. A horrendous event that rocked the country prior to the internet being commonplace and social media was practically non-existent. I remember coming home for lunch, as I always did, and seeing it on the news. I understood the nature of the tragedy but, being so far away in our quaint little town, it never really resonated as strongly as if we were in Stirling or somewhere nearby.
Fast forward almost ten years and I visit one of the most shocking and heartbreaking tragedies that lies close to home. I had come down from Scotland to visit my wife (fiancee at the time) and we visited the graves of the children and teachers who lost their lives in the Aberfan disaster. I remember this enormous lump in my throat and a sadness that welled up from nowhere. Knowing that George, her grandfather who was from Aberfan originally, had raced to the site along with others to assist in the rescue attempts hit me hard too – the community banding together to help; putting their safety second to their natural instinct to save and protect members of their community was awe-inspiring.
The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a National Coal Board (NCB) colliery spoil tip in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil on 21 October 1966. The tip slid down the mountain above the village at 9.15 am, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed the local junior school and other buildings in the town. The collapse was caused by the build-up of water in the accumulated rock and shale tip, which suddenly slid downhill in the form of slurry.
There were seven spoil tips on the slopes above Aberfan; tip seven—the one that slipped onto the village—was begun in 1958 and, at the time of the disaster, was 111 feet (34 m) high. In contravention of the NCB’s official procedures, the tip was partly based on ground from which water springs emerged. After three weeks of heavy rain the tip was saturated and approximately 140,000 cubic yards (110,000 m3) of spoil slipped down the side of the hill and onto the Pantglas area of the village. The main building hit was Pantglas Junior School, where lessons had just begun; 5 teachers and 109 children were killed in the school.
An official inquiry was chaired by Lord Justice Edmund Davies. The report placed the blame squarely on the NCB. The organisation’s chairman, Lord Robens, was criticised for making misleading statements and for not providing clarity as to the NCB’s knowledge of the presence of water springs on the hillside. Neither the NCB nor any of its employees were prosecuted and the organisation was not fined.
The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day of the disaster. It received nearly 88,000 contributions, totalling £1.75 million. The remaining tips were removed only after a lengthy fight by Aberfan residents, against resistance from the NCB and the government on the grounds of cost. Clearing was paid for by a government grant and a forced contribution of £150,000 taken from the memorial fund. In 1997 the British government paid back the £150,000 to the ADMF, and in 2007 the Welsh Assembly donated £1.5 million to the fund and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity as recompense for the money wrongly taken. Many of the village’s residents suffered medical problems, and half the surviving children experienced post-traumatic stress disorder at some time in their lives.
Last year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary, ITV aired “Aberfan: The Day Our Lives Changed‘. I get goosebumps just thinking about it and, now that I have kids of my own, I think the disaster hits home on all-new levels. To imagine the guilt of some of the parents for sending their children to school on the last day of term, unwittingly sending them to their death or severely affecting their future as the scars and tormented dreams follow them all through their adult lives. Or to imagine the guilt of those that survived. I can’t imagine how all of that must feel and how the people could find the strength to move on and have to revisit those deep-seated feelings every year for the rest of their lives. The disaster claimed more lives that day, their numbers unknown.
Again, in a time before social media, the disaster made shockwaves across more than just Wales. But imagine if the power of social media was there. As double-edged a sword social media is, it is a powerful tool if used properly and imagine if everybody had the voice to go viral over the slips the spoil tips had encountered in the years prior. The locals had voiced their concerns and had been ignored. The frustration and anger they must have felt is unimaginable, especially when their greatest fears ended up coming true.
Despite the disaster being eighteen years before I was born and almost two decades before a I moved to the area, the story always troubles me. As I have grown older and realised my responsibilities as an adult as well as a parent, the inspiration of the rescue efforts truly grips me.
Nowadays, our children will likely never know such tragedy (nor should they) but I hope that the memory of such events will always be held high as a reminder of what happened before them and to act as a flag in which they never have to endure similar things later in life by allowing history to repeat itself.
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