The Silence of Aberfan

Wales fell silent at 9:15 am on Friday, 21 October. People stopped to remember the tragedy of Aberfan. Exactly fifty years earlier, the children of Pantglas Junior School in this village just south of Merthyr Tydfil had just returned from assembly after singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Then a coal tip, a waste mountain of wet slag, ripped down a hillside, roaring over eighteen houses, smashing into classrooms, and killing 144 people, 28 adults and 116 children mostly between the ages of seven and ten.

For half a century, tons of debris from the Merthyr Vale Colliery had been dumped on the side of Mynydd Merthyr, a broad ridge looming over the village of Aberfan. Spoil heaps of coal mine waste were left on that sandstone hill, already riddled with ground water springs. After heavy autumn rains had turned the loose rock into sloppy mud, that Friday the liquefied slurry broke and erupted. In seconds 50,000 cubic yards swept downhill over a farm and homes and buried one side of the school over 30 feet deep in mud.

Local worries and warnings had been ignored or minimized for years. By 1963 the Merthyr Tydfil Council passed on their concerns to the National Coal Board, operator of the mines since 1947. The NCB Area Mechanical Engineer replied, acknowledging the danger, but the dumping continued on tip No. 7. In 1964 local councilor Gwyneth Williams officially warned again. By May 1965, the NCB Engineer reported that “tailings disposal at this site has ceased…otherwise the tip remains stable.” But it wasn’t.

Also in 1965 Headmistress Ann Jennings of Pantglas School presented a petition from the mothers of the students to the Merthyr County Borough Council. It went nowhere. Jennings, four other teachers, and many of the petitioners’ children died on that October morning. Another Aberfan resident, Dai Tudor, noted later, “I’ve warned and campaigned for years about that tip. Nobody in authority took any notice. This is not just the greatest tragedy in Wales. It is the biggest scandal.”

It was foggy in Aberfan that morning, so no one in the village could see the landslide coming down but everyone could hear the roiling mud. Some survivors thought they heard a jet plane diving into a crash.  Gaynor Minett recalled, “It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead…Everyone just froze in their seats…I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.”  George Williams remembered the quiet. “In that silence you couldn’t hear a bird or a child.”

After the main blast stopped, frantic parents rushed to the school to save their children. They had only bare hands to claw away the rubble. A few students were dragged from the mud immediately afterward but none were found alive after 11 am. Police from Merthyr took charge. The most they could do was contain the crowds that rushed in to Aberfan to help. Local miners and rescue teams scrambled in but there was little left to do. The avalanche also broke water mains to Cardiff that flooded the debris again.

The Tribunal of Inquiry blamed the Coal Board and its chairman, Alfred Lord Robens, although he claimed it was an unavoidable natural disaster. He took a very narrow view of his responsibility. During the inquest, shouts of “murderers” were reported by The Merthyr Express. A father heard his child’s cause of death named as asphyxia but he countered, “No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board.”

The nearby mine finally closed in 1989. In 1997, in greeting a large gathering of survivors and relatives, the Queen planted a flowering cherry tree for the Aberfan Memorial Garden, standing on the site of the Pantglas School. And over the years, there have been many poems and songs in commemoration.

 

Among the memorials heard this October, Karl Jenkins composed Cantata Memoria: For the children for the Millennium Centre featuring Bryn Terfel and a children’s choir. BBC Wales presented a “verse drama created from first person accounts” in the film The Green Hollow, written by poet Owen Sheers in the voices of the children, now heard again as “something beautiful from the sullen weight of Aberfan.”