The Aberfan disaster was one of the most tragic accidents in English history, both in terms of the sheer numbers of people killed and also the demographics of those victims: mainly young children at a primary school…
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What occurred in the Aberfan disaster? On Friday 21st October 1966, at exactly 9.15 AM, colliery waste tip #7 (consisting of unwanted material from a local mine) became unstable and slid down the Merthyr Mountain. As it descended the mountain, it destroyed 20 houses, a farm and eventually decimated the Pantglas Junior School. The school children had just left assembly and so were exposed in the open as they were returning to their classrooms. They were hit directly by the slide.
The casualty figures are still shocking 41 years later. There were a total of 144 people killed, including 116 children from the school, most of whom were 7-10 years old. Five teachers were also killed in the slide, and only a few children were actually pulled from the rubble alive.
The beginning of the trouble surrounding the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster was embodied by the fact that Lord Robens of Woldingham, who was the Chairman of the NCB at the time, decided to go through with the ceremony of his investiture as the Chancellor of the University of Surrey rather than going to the scene. His casual reaction to the immediate news of what had occurred at Aberfan continued with an apparently deliberate attempt at misrepresentation of what had caused the slide - including the false claim that nothing could have been done to prevent. The idea that virtually all "accidents" involving manmade materials or structures (as opposed to purely natural phenomena such as floods) could actually be avoided with the right planning and management had yet to appear.
This analysis will consider what might have been done differently both before the disaster to avoid what occurred, and then after it to alleviate the suffering and effect of it upon survivors. Hindsight always gives us 20-20 vision, but it is clear that a number of mistakes were made which could have been regarded as rising to the level of negligent homicide if the inquiry had been orientated that way. Soon after the disaster a "Tribunal of Inquiry" was set up into the Aberfan disaster, and the National Coal Board was found completely responsible for what occurred due to its "ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communication" (National, 1967).
The basis of this ineptitude was the fact that the tip had been located in 1958 on the site of a known stream. The NCB had been warned on repeated occasions regarding the possible dangers of such a location, but chose to either ignore them or underestimate their importance. Several small slides had already occurred. Both mine managers and colliery workers knew of the problems but no-one did anything about them. More of this in the analysis of the long-term reaction to the disaster, but it is clear that twenty-first century planning permission procedures and regulatory authorities would have prevented the tip from being located where it was, and in the event that it had been located there it would soon have been removed. Specifically, the Mines and Quarries Tips Act of 1969 was passed that made the planning of mine tips close to villages a far more public and carefully considered project. No longer would it be left to the managers of mines to locate where and how they would be located.
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