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The Aberfan Disaster

Posted in Britain in the 60s, Disasters, Famous news stories on Wednesday, 8 June 2011

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This edited article about the Aberfan disaster originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 961 published on 9 August 1980.

On Friday, 21st October, 1966, the children in the South Wales village of Aberfan had trooped to school in happy mood. At midday the school was to break up for the half-term holiday. The bell rang for lessons to begin, and children began crowding into their classrooms, where the teachers were waiting to call the register.

Suddenly, while some of the children still lingered in the playground, a deep rumbling sound was heard from somewhere behind the school buildings. Moments later, hideous tragedy struck . . .

Dominating Aberfan was a lofty spoil-tip, or slag-heap; one of those ugly man-made hills that scar many an industrial landscape. This tip had been formed of the accumulated waste from the neighbouring Merthyr Dale coal-mine.

Anxiety had been previously expressed about a possible threat to the village from the Aberfan tip, though the Coal Board experts do not seem to have appreciated the danger; but on the morning of the 21st the Merthyr Dale management received a report that there had been some movement in the tip during the night, possibly as a result of recent heavy rain. They decided to send a maintenance man to inspect.

It was as he stood on the summit of the tip that he suddenly heard a noise like thunder, and, to his horror, saw a huge mass of soil, stones and mud begin to slide down towards the village. The school stood right in its path.

Neither teachers nor pupils had any time to get out of the buildings before the 40-metre-high avalanche fell on them. Walls were crushed and furniture smashed. Many were killed instantly, others trapped in the wreckage or engulfed in a deluge of mud.

Not only those inside the school fell victims. Even some of the children in the playground were caught by the rolling mass before they could run clear; while, at a nearby farm, a woman and her three grandchildren were later found dead.

The alarm quickly spread, and soon the villagers were desperately working to rescue the trapped and injured. Mothers waded through the clinging mud in a frantic search for their children. Rescue services joined in the action, and the search for victims went on.

After darkness fell, the quest continued by the glare of floodlights. When at last the heart-breaking task was done, Aberfan mourned the death of nearly 150 members of the little community.

The dreadful experience of that day taught the members of the coal-mining industry a bitter lesson; and today the formation of colliery tips is more carefully controlled, with special attention to drainage.

Where Pantglas School once stood, there is now a memorial garden, lovingly tended in rememberance of the 116 Aberfan children who died.

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