Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Aberfan by O. Reader


Click this for the music:

            This is not a humorous post. This is the story of one of the biggest peace-time disasters in the recent history of the UK that occurred close to where I now live.
            Most people of a certain age can remember where they were when certainly key events happened - the shooting of John F Kennedy in Dallas is an obvious example. Here in Britain, many of a certain age can remember where they were when they first heard about the Aberfan disaster, 50 years ago. A huge tip of mining waste suddenly slid down a mountainside and engulfed a junior school and nearby houses, killing over a hundred small children.
            The news broke when I was living in the English county of Berkshire, sharing a trailer with a work colleague in a religious ministry. My colleague (I should say friend - we are still in touch) came from Wales, and that week his parents were visiting and staying with us. We saw the grainy images on the TV and black and white photographs in the newspaper. Aberfan? I’d never heard of the place. Eight years later I was married and living only three miles from where the disaster happened.
            The South Wales valleys were slaves to iron and steel and particularly coal. Frankly in the great scheme of things in the British Empire, the people who dug it out of the ground were expendable. There were plenty more where they came from.
            Shortly after I came to Wales I was living in the capital, Cardiff. Cardiff is a pleasant city, quite small by my standards since I come from London, but well designed with good parkland. Just a few miles north the mining area started. It was another world. It could have been on Mars as far as native Cardiff people were concerned. No-body in Cardiff went north unless they had to, and when the valleys folk came south on various railway lines on Thursdays (because that was half-day closing for valleys shops) to their shame Cardiff people would snigger at them. That is probably an unfair generalization, but the attitude was certainly common.
            The mining areas were a mess. The tops of valleys still had a few farms from the old days, but the actual valleys were ruined by the industry. All along the sides of the valleys were great huge mountains of mining waste. Reportedly the largest man-made “mountain” in the world at one time was in Bargoed, just two valleys over from the Merthyr Valley and Aberfan. These huge spoil heaps just kept on increasing from all the waste that was left after the coal was extracted in the bottom of the valleys.
            So Aberfan was no different to most other places. There was a huge colliery that joined up underground with numerous other workings. It was a typical village of drab, mean little houses, poor essential services, miners’ social clubs, and various chapels now in decline. For much of Welsh mining history it was a tale everywhere of poor wages and very dangerous working conditions. What it did do was forge very close communities. Education was the only escape from working underground. No doubt this same scenario also played out in other mining areas both in England and America.
            Of course, the huge ugly mounds of debris on the mountainside had been known to slip a little. A road got damaged in the Aberdare valley in the 1930s. But no-one got hurt, so why worry? And of course, they were supposed to watch the tips and monitor them. But here at Aberfan it was so high up it would never crash down the hillside to get anywhere near the village. It couldn’t happen.
            Well, of course it did happen. And anyone with a basic knowledge of Welsh will know that the very name of the village refers to a watercourse. And in their “wisdom” they put this tip on top of a spring and kept adding to it year after year after year.
            So, finally, on the morning of 21 October 1966, when the children had just started school, it slipped. It was foggy in the village and no-one had a chance of seeing it coming. It rumbled down the hill at terrifying speed. Even if the warning telephone from the top had been operative, which typically it wasn’t, they couldn’t have warned anyone in time. It smashed into the Pantglas Primary School and many surrounding houses. What made the tragedy even worse was that just above the school was the path of the old Glamorganshire canal. It had been sold to the Water Board years before and they used it to run a water supply for Cardiff in two huge pipes all the way down from the reservoirs in the Brecon Beacons. The thundering mass ripped open the pipework adding millions of gallons of water to the mix. The slurry that hit the school at high speed was an estimated 12 meters (39 feet) deep. And the water from the pipes just kept on coming.
            The time was 9.15 a.m. Fifteen minutes earlier most would have been saved. Another few hours later it would have been the same. This was the last day of term and they only had a half day timed for school.
            One hundred sixteen children between the ages of seven to ten perished. The final death toll including older children and adults was 144. I won’t go into the attempted rescue attempts. You can read about them online if you have a mind to. The miners came up from the pit and used their expertise to do what they could. Most died instantly from drowning or being crushed. An elderly man who is a patient of mine (and who incidentally got the MBE for his life’s work) was on his way to conduct a First Aid examination near the school and was one of the first there, but could see immediately where it was hopeless and where hope may still exist. He spent several days with his team of stretcher bearers working around the clock recovering little bodies and taking them to the temporary mortuary in a local chapel. To this day he is saddened that he only rescued one person alive, and that was a woman in one of the nearby houses. When the force of the landslide demolished her home, a metal fire grate came out of the wall and pinned her down, but somehow created a pocket that allowed rescuers to get her out in time. His haunting memory is of a neighbour whose boy didn’t want to go school that day. She insisted that he went, which as a parent is what you would naturally do. But, however irrational, imagine living with the consequences of that decision for the rest of life.
            And now comes the angry bit. However, you cut it, the National Coal Board was responsible for what happened. They ignored warnings and viewed their workforce as unimportant other than as tools, and then after it was all over, they tried to wriggle out of blame. The chairman of the Coal Board didn’t go to Aberfan immediately - he had a prior engagement elsewhere to receive an honor, so chose to do that instead. Faced with the responsibility of removing the debris and potential further disasters from other unstable tips all along the valley, they didn’t want to pay up. A huge fund for survivors and the village in general was raised from a generous public throughout the British Isles. It was insisted that £150,000 from THIS fund should be used to help take away the remaining tips, which they pontificated were “safe”. And they got away with it too! It was only in 1997 that the money was finally returned to the relief fund by the British government of the day.
            At the end of the day, no-one was disciplined; no-one lost their job or even just got demoted. The official enquiry balked at using phrases like “callous indifference” but settled on “bungling ineptitude” instead. Engineers had only bothered with conditions underground, not on the hillside. Their evidence was likened by the tribunal in a memorable phrase, to that of “moles being asked about the habits of birds”. The Coal Board ultimately made an offer of compensation - £50 per child. They were forced to increase it to £500. A damning memo that came to light (after what in Britain is a 30 year rule before classified documents are released) was the suggestion that, if in interviews parents appeared to be not that close to their dead children, maybe they could get away with paying less.
            So they cleaned up the valley; in fact they cleaned up all the valleys. There is now a leisure center in Aberfan - paid for from the relief fund - and while other similar centers in other villages have closed in recent years, directing attention to the larger towns for such facilities, they will never be able to close this one. I have been to children’s parties there, my daughter had her wedding reception there, and Mrs O goes swimming there. And there is a memorial garden with little walls set out in the shape of the classrooms of the doomed school that is immaculately kept.

 The tips have gone now. There is an occasional grassy hill that looks a little unusual in shape, but basically, all the tips have been removed. Trees have been planted, grass has grown, and millions upon millions of GBP have been spent on South Wales from European money. Where once there were collieries, now rivers and lakes and country parks flourish. And people from Cardiff? Now many want to live in “the valleys” - the title has taken on a whole new meaning - now it means living in the countryside - being only half an hour from the city (traffic permitting) and even nearer to the Brecon Beacons National Park. The little homes have been brightened up, and new estates (think Pete Seeger singing Little Boxes) have sprung up where once there was industry. Of course, there is very little work, but most of those who do work just commute down the valleys to the cities, Newport, Cardiff and Swansea.
            It has been an interesting time to live in an area. When I was sent here by the religious organization I worked for it was grim. You had to wash your front doorstep and not leave the washing out too long because of the dust from the pits. Now, with a country park outside the back door, and the innate friendliness of local people that fortunately still survives, I don’t think I would want to be anywhere else.


  1. Tragedies like this happen all too often. Corporate profits are hurt by safety procedures. Mining companies in America screamed when they were forced to clean up lands that they had strip-mined for years with no regard for the surrounding communities. Railroads drag their feet rather than quickly replace tanker cars that easily rupture in an accident. Oil companies insist in pumping waste water into wells to force out more oil (fracking), a process that has polluted water supplies, and in the case of Oklahoma, increased the number of earthquakes by 5000%!

    The safety of the people need to come before the greed of the millionaires that run these large corporations that care nothing for the human costs of their business decisions.

  2. At least now there are laws in place and penalties that can hopefully be enforced for those who transgress, when it comes to public safety. Sadly with Aberfan, it wasn't a private company run by millionaires, but a nationalized industry - i.e. since 1947 the British Government had been responsible for it. And the people on the ground who should have used their eyes and their brains were characterized in the inquiry for their "bungling ineptitude."

    It just so happens that this afternoon one of my patients was the gentleman referred to in the article who had run the St John's Ambulance service in the aftermath of the disaster. His memories of that time included the story of the mother who insisted her boy went to school that day. I had passed that on to Amy Goddard at some point, because her song uses that as the angle the story takes. So this afternoon we had a swap. I went away with a written history of the St John's Ambulance Service for Aberfan, and I will be dropping in a copy of Amy's CD later on this week.

  3. Thanks for this article Jerome. It is sad, but it is right to keep alive these kind of memories, even though men always make the same errors.