On October 21st 1966 there was a terrible tragedy in the town of Aberfan in South Wales when after days of heavy rain a primary school was engulfed with waste from a coal tip that had become dangerously unstable and eventually collapsed.
Like a volcanic eruption the slurry slid down Merthyr Mountain behind the village at about nine o’clock just as the school was starting the business of the day, killing one hundred and sixteen children and twenty-eight adults.
I can remember the disaster quite clearly because I think it was the first time in my life (I was twelve years old) that such an incident made an impact upon me and I recall watching the television news footage and the terrible despair of the community.
Coal mining was still big business in South Wales in the 1960s and all of the towns in the valleys had their pit and their slag heap that consisted of the waste and the slurry that was extracted from the mines. Coal mining was a dangerous business and there were frequent news items about disasters and deaths and this just seemed to be an acceptable risk associated with the industry but this was something completely different and the death of so many children brought the dangers and the unpleasant nature of the industry to the attention of the public and the Government and may have been one of the early reasons for its eventual demise.
Immediately after the disaster The Town of Merthyr set up a Disaster Fund collecting approximately £1,750,000 by the time the fund closed a year later which was a huge amount in those days. Unbelievably, part of the fund was used to make the remainder of the waste tip safe and the Coal Board thereby avoided the costs of doing the job themselves. The Labour government paid back the £150,000 in 1997, although taking account of inflation this should have been £1.5m.
Although the National Coal Board was found responsible for the disaster at an enquiry, Lord Robens, its Chairman, declared the cause of the slide to be the responsibility of the community and falsely claimed that nothing could have been done to prevent it. Robens never apologised or showed any sign of remorse. The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child and the Merthyr Vale Colliery was closed in 1989. In February 2007 the Welsh Assembly announced the donation of £2m to the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund, in part as recompense for the money requisitioned from the fund by the government in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Eight years after the disaster I went to Cardiff University and lived at the southern end of the coal mining valleys, the story always stayed with me and one day I took a train to Aberfan to see the place for myself. There was no evidence of the disaster of course and the slag heap had gone. I visited the cemetery and the memorials and although it gave me some sort of ‘closure’ I have always remembered that dreadful event.