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Aberfan: heroes and villans

Although responsibilty for the waste-tip avalanche that crushed a school was never denied by the National Coal Board, neither was justice ever really pursued, explains RICHARD RUDKIN

ON FRIDAY, October 21 1966, 54 years ago today, teachers and children of Pantglas junior school in the South Wales mining village of Aberfan were settling down in class for their last day at school before the half-term break.

However, by the time they should have been going through the school gates to enjoy their holiday, a total of 144 people including 116 children and 5 teachers, would lose their lives in one of the worst disasters in recent British history. Like other disasters, this too was preventable.

Back in 1966 mining was a nationalised industry — the responsibility of the National Coal Board (NCB). Stored above the slopes of Aberfan were seven spoil heaps, known as tips, used to store the waste generated from the mining process.

October had been a particular wet month. So far, the area had experienced about six inches of rainfall. At 7.30am one of the NCB staff working on the tips had noticed that tip 7 had subsided. Following an inspection by a supervisor, a decision was made not to use it that day.

Shortly after, at about 9.15am, a dull rumble that increased in volume could be heard as tip 7 began to move again. What began as a slow movement of a slurry-like substance gained speed and strength as it raced down the slopes flattening everything in its path.

With every second the avalanche became more deadly, as debris from the buildings it had demolished added to mixture before finally crashing into the school at a speed estimated by some as 80mph.

With the pit alarms sounding, miners that had been working below ground were quickly brought to the surface to help with the rescue. For many of them, they were were not digging just to find survivors, they were digging to find their own children.

Within days of the tragedy, Harold Wilson’s Labour government had set up an inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Edmund Davies.

The tribunal heard evidence from over 130 witnesses, including many NCB employees, supervisors and engineers.

Under questioning, witnesses for the NCB agreed that tip safety arrangements had been inadequate and the instability of tip 7, standing over 100 ft high, could have been foreseen.

More damning was the admission that the instability of tip 7 was common knowledge within the NCB.

In early August 1967, the findings of the tribunal were published. Unlike the survivors and the relatives of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster, there was no attempt to whitewash the verdict. It was made abundantly clear who was responsible for the loss of 144 lives.

The opening line of the report set the tone for which the remainder was written: “Our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.”

The blame for the tragedy was placed squarely on the NCB, with the organisation’s chairman, Lord Robens, in particular being accused of making misleading statements.

Initially when talking to the press, Robens categorically denied the NCB had knowledge of any natural-water spring running through the hills under tip 7.

However, when questioned at tribunal, Robens was more ambiguous with his answers to just how much the NCB knew about the springs. It emerged not only that the natural springs were common knowledge, but they were clearly sited on Ordnance Survey maps.

Yet, despite this damning evidence and unquestionable guilt, not one person was held to account for the disaster. No fines were imposed on the NCB nor were there any prosecutions.

One argument for not imposing a fine could be, as the NCB was a nationalised industry, what would be the point? But this refusal to target anybody even for a symbolic penalty was an insult to the victims and a sop to the culture of impunity that surrounded — and still surrounds — the elite. Some NCB staff, having failed to be held to account for their incompetence or bad practice, later received promotions.

Robens offered his resignation which of course was the right and honourable thing for him to do. Yet, surprisingly, then-minister of power Richard Marsh refused to accept it.

Many years later all became clear when a freedom of information request by Professor Iain McLean of Nuffield College Oxford revealed the offer of resignation by Robens appeared to be nothing more than a sham.

The archived files showed that not only had Robens had read the report and been assured his job was safe prior to it being published, but also, unbelievably, Robens wrote his letter of resignation and worded the response Marsh used in refusing to accept it.

The Aberfan tragedy touched people worldwide. Children, myself included, took money to school to give to the Aberfan disaster fund.

However to add insult to injury, the NCB that had been responsible for the loss of life, used some of the money, parts of which had been donated by the poorest in society, to cover the cost of removing what was left of tip 7 — although it was paid back years later.

Like many tragedies, stories of acts of heroism emerged. At Pantglas school that day the hero would be the school dinner lady, 44-year-old Nansi Williams who was busy collecting lunch money from the children when the rumbling sound could be heard. As the school began to shake, five children still waiting to hand in their money were told by Williams to lay on the ground.

In a remarkable act of self-sacrifice, Williams used her body to protect them as the avalanche crashed through the school, killing her instantly.

Unlike the families of the Hillsborough disaster, the relatives of those killed in Aberfan did get the truth, together with who was to blame, at the first time of asking. Did they get justice? Certainly not.

Aberfan will never forget the victims — and certainly not Williams who, unlike Lord Robens not even willing to give up his career, sacrificed her life to save the lives of children. A remarkable women indeed.

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