On the morning of October 21st 1966, the young students of Pantglas Primary school stood for assembly singing the well-known hymn; all things bright and beautiful. By 9:15, all students were in their classrooms ready to begin their last classes before breaking at midday for the highly-anticipated half-term holiday.
However, earlier that morning at approximately 7.30 am, the first miners arrived for work on the mountain behind the village. However, it was quickly noticed that one of the soil tips (Tip Seven) had slipped 10ft down the mountain. This was assumed to be a result of the heavy rainfall they had during the previous three weeks; the soil had become completely saturated and it was decided that no work would be carried out using Tip Seven that day.
At 09.15 am, significant amounts of debris began to break away from Tip Seven and flow down towards the village. 140,000 cubic yards of soil slid down the mountain destroying two farm cottages and killing all those inside. The unstoppable load of soil flowed down the mountain until hitting Pantglas primary school and eight surrounding houses. The soil engulfed much of the structures and buried all those who laid within.
Survivors of the disaster have said that the soil racing down the mountain “sounded like thunder”. The avalanche could be seen and heard in the distance and whilst some teachers of the school successfully evacuated their classes, others were not so fortunate. School staff were killed trying to protect the children. Nansi Williams, who worked in the school cafeteria, used her body to shield five children. Sadly, Nansi lost her life but thanks to her sacrifice the five children were rescued. The deputy headmaster of the school, Dai Benyon, attempted to shelter himself and other children from the slurry behind a blackboard. Unfortunately, neither Benyon nor any of the 34 pupils in his class survived.
Once the avalanche subsided silence fell on the village, not a bird nor a child could be heard in the immediate aftermath.
Silence soon broke to the desperation of rescue efforts. Once the alarm was raised, people ran from everywhere to help save those who could be saved. Through sheer desperation, many people dug through the sludge with their bare hands searching for any signs of life. In total 27 people were rescued, 22 children (one sadly died on route to hospital) and 5 adults. Despite the early success of rescuing these people, no survivors were found after 11.00 am. After this time, all efforts were placed on recovering bodies and clearing the sludge. It was not until a week later, on the 28th October that the final victim was found.
In total 144 lives were lost that day, 116 of whom were children. The majority of the children were aged between 7 and 10 years old on the day they died.
The pain and sorrow of this disaster were not only felt within this small mining village but instead, it was felt all across the world. People prayed for Aberfan, countries wept for Aberfan and the world grieved in solace with Aberfan.
The evening of the disaster, the mayor of Merthyr Tydfil set up The Aberfan Disaster Fund to raise money for those affected. 88,000 people, charities and businesses contributed and together they raised a total of £1.75 million.
A tribunal was held to investigate why and how such a catastrophic event could be allowed to happen. Upon its conclusion on 28th April 1967, the inquiry team wrote “the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. It was not through wickedness but instead through ignorance… failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge”. The blame was predominantly placed on the National Coal Board and nine named employees.
Following the disaster, the people of Aberfan petitioned the Secretary of State for the remaining tips to be removed but the National Coal Board was sceptical to do so because of the huge financial costs involved. To pay for the removal of these tips, £150,000 was unjustly taken from the Aberfan Disaster Fund after the fund trustees were told, ‘if they want the tips removed then there is no alternative than to pay for it’. It was not until 1997 that this wrong was (partially) righted and the £150,000 was returned to the disaster fund. However, there was no allowance made for inflation or interest on the money. Therefore, in 2007 the Welsh Government donated £1.5 million to the Aberfan Memorial charity and a further £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity.
On the morning of October 21st, 1966 the children of Aberfan played together for the final time; the children of Aberfan sang hymns and said their prayers for the final time and for the final time, the parents of Aberfan kissed their children goodbye.
By Meryl Hanmer