Sunday, October 15, 2006
Forty years on
Ask an Englishman what happened in 1966 and he'll tell you that England won the World Cup. But ask a Welshman and it will be a different story. At about 9.00am on the morning of Friday, October 21, 1966, a waste tip started to slide down a mountainside in South Wales. The first obstacle in its path was a stone farm cottage, which it crushed, killing all its occupants. Like some giant triffid, it continued its descent towards the small mining village of Aberfan, 600 feet below. It was harvest festival time, and the young pupils of Pantglas Junior School had just returned to their classes after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful at their school assembly.
Although it was sunny on the mountain, it was foggy in the village, and visibility was only about 50 yards. The workers higher up had seen the slide start, but had no way of raising the alarm because their telephones were not working: the cable had been stolen so many times that they had stopped replacing it. But as the slide picked up speed so quickly, it was unlikely that a telephone warning could have saved lives.
Down in the village, no one saw anything. But everybody heard the noise. As the thirty-foot high pile of stones and rubble, weighing half a million tons, approached, it sounded, as a witness recalled, ‘like a jet engine’.
By the time the noise ceased and the slide had come to rest, it had engulfed the school and twenty houses. 144 people died in Aberfan: 116 of them were school children between the ages of seven and ten. About half of the children at Pantglas Junior School and five of their teachers were killed. It took a week to recover all the bodies.
The tribunal set up to investigate the cause of the disaster called it ‘a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by […] men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction’. It concluded that ‘the blame for the disaster rests wholly with the National Coal Board’, owners of the tip.
The Aberfan disaster touched the hearts and consciences of not only Britain but the world. By the time the Disaster Fund to aid the village and the bereaved had closed, nearly 90,000 contributions had been received, totalling £1.6million. In today’s money it would equal at least fifty times that figure.
It was believed that the cause of the disaster was a stream under the tip which had become swollen and made the waste unstable. The existence of the stream was well known locally - but Coal Board officials claimed to have no knowledge of it.
A final outrage was that, as the National Coal Board refused to accept responsibility for the disaster, the fund had to pay £150,000 towards the cost of removing the remaining tips that overlooked the village. The Coal Board eventually agreed to refund this money – 31 years later, and without interest.
Today, on the site on which the old school had stood, Portland stone arches surround a memorial garden. Its blooms are predominantly pink and blue, to commemorate the 116 girls and boys who lost their lives here, on that last day before the half-term holiday, 40 years ago this week.
Four legs good
There’s a notice on the wall in Windsor Library that reads ‘Guide Dogs Only’. The first thing you notice is that the place is full of people, so clearly a lot of two-legged beings are ignoring the instruction. Secondly, if the Town Council hopes to deter dogs of the non-guiding variety from entering, they should have noticed that the sign is placed too high on the wall for any dog – guide or otherwise – to see. Furthermore, since very few dogs can read, it is not possible for either type of canine to heed the instruction, whatever its elevation. And finally, since the owners of the only type of dog permitted to enter the library are blind, they too will be unable to read the sign.
So what’s it doing there?