Aberfan (1966)

Early on the morning of the 21 October 1966 the mining village of Aberfan in Wales suffered a tragedy so great it was headline news for months. 

A huge hill of coal waste from mining, which was piled over the village over years, collapsed.  It slid down into the village, covering the local school that was in its path.  116 children and 28 adults were killed.

The pile had been built over a layer of porous sandstone that contained underground springs.  Rainwater built up the springs over time until they disrupted the pile.  The pile of slurry that smashed into the village, hitting a farm and then Pantglas Junior School first, was over 12 meters deep.   The children had been in school just a few minutes, singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in assembly; it was the last day before half term.

Mud and water flooded many other houses forcing a partial evacuation for those in the area who could still escape.

The warning signs had been there.  Some locals, including an engineer working for the colliery company, had reported their concerns to the National Coal Board to no aviail.  However, though the huge hill of waste was perched precariously above the village and the school, locals were so familiar with the tip – slowly built over time – that they did not register their concerns in a way that meant they withdrew their children from school.  For the vast majority, the mine was the sole source of family income.  Without the mine there would’ve been almost no employment in the town.Villagers were unable to raise the initial alarm because the telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen, however, the official inquiry established that the slide happened so fast that access to telephones wouldn’t have saved any lives.

When the landslide stopped parents rushed to the school and began trying to dig their children out.  The rescue operation saw more than 2000 rescue workers around the clock. Despite the scale of the operation, though a few children were rescued that morning, there were no survivors after 11am.  It took a week to recover all the bodies.

A temporary mortuary was created in the local chapel; victims laid to rest there before their funerals.  Cause of death was usually suffocation, skull fractures, or crush injuries.  Parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify their children.   Over half the children in the school were killed.   Over 2000 people attended a shared funeral on 27 October 1966.

The actions of the Coal Board, who ignored warnings before the disaster, never thinking such a disaster would be possible – despite smaller slides in the past – were heavily criticized for the way they handled the aftermath.  The Chairman, Lord Robens, carried on with his normal duties until the evening of the following day.  National Coal Board officials claimed he was directing the rescue work when he was not.  Robens told the media that the disaster could not have been predicted and that nobody knew there were springs underneath the pile: everyone in the village knew this was a lie.  Robens went on to refuse finding for the removal of the remaining tips in Aberfan, taking the money from the seriously mismanaged disaster relief fund donations instead.

A short amateur documentary does this disaster justice:

The National Coal Board was blamed by the tribunal for a “total absence of tipping policy”.  The tips had never been surveyed and there was no methodology in how the waste was dumped on top of the pile.  It was noted that there was  ”no legislation dealing with the safety of tips in force in this or any country, except in part of West Germany and in South Africa”   Blame was placed on “the National Coal Board. This is shared, though in varying degrees, among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals.”  Health & Safety legislation was drafted, including the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969.

The National Coal Board was ordered to pay compensation to the families of £500 per child.  No one from the Coal Boardwas sacked, demoted or prosecuted.

Some of the press behaved in a manner totally unbecoming.  One rescue worker later reported that she heard a photographer ask a child to cry, as it would make a good picture.

Families were understandably overwhelmed with anger and grief.  At the tribunal, as the causes of death were read out one by one, a father rose and demanded “asphyxia” was replaced with, “buried alive by the National Coal Board. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.”  Noticeable tension rose between families who’d lost children and those who had not.   Survivor guilt was prevalent, as was alcohol abuse.  Half the survivors suffered PTSD.

From this awful tragedy organisations can learn numerous lessons.  Those that may be key here:

  • Dealing with warnings. Organisations should be a process for dealing with received warnings to determine how to deal with them appropriately
  • Taking personal responsibility. Everyone should responsibility for raising alarms
  • The appearance of leadership. How it looks can be as important as how leadership acts behind the scenes in terms of reputation
  • Post-disaster management is long haul.  Substantial effort may be required for many years to make appropriate change and support those involved
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