Remembering the Aberfan Disaster

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jan 09, 2016

“History is a vast early warning system.”
Norman Cousins

In a recent chapel message here at the University of Valley Forge, Rev. Carl Colletti, chairman of the Board of Trustees, shared a story that grabbed my attention then and holds it to this day. He warned us about placing too much focus on the external part of our lives (appearance) and neglecting the internal part (character).

To illustrate his central idea, he told us about the Aberfan Disaster. I had never heard of Aberfan, Wales, nor had I ever heard of what took place there on Oct. 21, 1966. It all started in 1870 when coal miners began piling up mining debris just above the village of Aberfan. 

For nearly 100 years, layer upon layer of loose rock and mining spoils formed huge piles (or “tips”) that were hundreds of feet high. These piles of millions of cubic feet of sludge and slack were built over a layer of highly porous sandstone that contained numerous underground springs. You can only imagine the pending disaster. Many warnings were given to the mining company that something dreadful could happen but all of those warnings of a pending disaster were ignored.

Early on the morning of Friday, Oct. 21, 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a small slide began. By 9:15 am the whole side of a pile of thousands of cubic feet of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village. The tipping gang on the mountain saw the landslide but they were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen. But even if the cable had been connected, it all happened so fast the disaster could not have been avoided. 

The mudslide was 39 feet high when it smashed into the village. It destroyed a farm and 20 terraced houses along the road before it slammed into the Pantglas Junior School and separate senior school, virtually demolishing both buildings. The pupils from the Pantglas Junior School had just left the assembly hall, where they had been singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” when they heard a great noise outside. 

After the landslide there was total silence. Frantic parents rushed to the scene and began digging through the rubble, some clawing at the debris with their bare hands, trying to uncover buried children. A few children were pulled out alive in the first hour but no survivors were found after 11 am. The disaster was so horrifying that everybody wanted to do something. Hundreds of people rushed there with shovels to help out but by then it was too late. The final death toll was 144, of whom 116 were children between the ages of 7 and 10 along with five teachers. 

In the years that followed, many suffered from the effects of guilt, such as the parents who had sent their children to school who did not want to go. Tensions arose between families that had lost children and those who had not. One of the surviving school children recalled that they did not want to go out to play for a long time because the family who had lost children could not bear to see them and they themselves felt guilty about the fact that they had survived. 

A tribunal was appointed to inquire into the causes of the circumstances related to the disaster. After 76 days of interviewing 136 witnesses, examining 300 exhibits and hearing 2,500,000 words of testimony, it concluded that repeated warnings about the dangerous conditions had been ignored. The coal engineers at all levels concentrated only on the conditions in the mines and not those of the piles of mining debris. 

If I need to be warned about appearance vs. character, I hope I am not around anyone like John Bercow who said, “I’m not in the business of warning people.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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