Danger from coal slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas School
October 20, 2016 11:59 PM   Subscribe

21st October 1966, 9.20am and school had just started. (Trigger warning - immense tragedy involving children.) It's 50 years to the day that the tragedy at Aberfan occurred. A school was lost and a community was devastated. And those responsible denied their culpability for as long as possible. posted by Martha My Dear Prudence (49 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow. I remember this. I was four years old, in kindergarten. Dog, it must have made an impression on me. I remember the confusion of realising that a safe place could become so unsafe. I lost some innocence that day. The people of Aberfan and Wales lost a lot more, of course. Especially, oh dear, as they warned and campaigned against this very event.

Apropos: Brazilian prosecutors on Thursday charged 26 people, 21 for qualified homicide, for their alleged roles in the [2015 Samarco Dam] disaster.
posted by Thella at 12:50 AM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


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posted by doornoise at 12:53 AM on October 21, 2016


My thoughts on this are a bit of a mess. On the one hand there is immense sadness and incomprehension over such an unimaginable tragedy and on the other anger against the Roben & the NCB who systematically ignored the warnings and then blamed the media, rain and geology for months before accepting what everybody else knew and taking the blame, followed by the almost inevitable lack of consequences for all those in power.

Whilst the UK has moved on industrially and economically in the intervening 50 years, I also find it interesting that the Health & Safety changes implemented in the workplace over the years in direct response to disasters such as these are now often held up, by an older (dare I say Brexit-friendly) group in society, as mollycoddling, unnecessarily complicated & "Political Correctness gone mad". How quickly people forget how deadly the "Good Old Days" could be and how much progress we've made.

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posted by jontyjago at 1:09 AM on October 21, 2016 [29 favorites]


That first link does the BBC proud.

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posted by Mister Bijou at 1:14 AM on October 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


A five minute silence to commemorate this is about to begin at my college. Aberfan is my earliest memory of a real time news event unfolding. It disturbed me very much as a child.
posted by communicator at 1:15 AM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


My paternal grandfather was one of the hundreds of miners from nearby collieries who volunteered to help with the clearance & recovery effort.

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posted by misteraitch at 1:16 AM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


incomprehension over such an unimaginable tragedy

I know what you are saying, jontyjago, but it wasn't unimaginable, that is part of the horror. It was foreseen. The obfuscation later was just an abhorrent display of moral weakness on the part of the incompetent men involved.

The Precautionary Principle. Goddamnit, it should be embedded in our state and national constitutions.
posted by Thella at 1:19 AM on October 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


Then there was the issue of compensation.

To reach an appropriate sum the Charity Commission proposed asking grief-stricken parents ‘exactly how close were you to your child?’; those found not to have been close to their children would not be compensated.

Mercifully, the proposal was never acted upon. The NCB initially offered £50 before raising it to the "generous offer" of £500.


What ?
posted by Pendragon at 1:22 AM on October 21, 2016 [11 favorites]


Children weren't worth as much 50 years ago as they are today. Childhood itself is a fairly recent 'invention'.
posted by Thella at 1:32 AM on October 21, 2016


Pshaw! Working class parents don't care about their children! we don't talk about love, we only want to get drunk

There are many in this country who would love to get rid of the Health and Safety at Work Act, dismissing it as red tape and bureaucracy. My Dad, who is not generally thought of as PC, is brought to tears by the mere mention of Aberfan. He remembers from his own working life people losing fingers from reaching into machinery on the orders of management, one lad being killed by a combine, and countless near-misses.

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posted by threetwentytwo at 1:59 AM on October 21, 2016 [16 favorites]


One indirect consequence of the Aberfan disaster was the gradual demolition/abandonment of at least one other South Wales valleys village, Troedrhiwfuwch (my paternal grandfather’s birthplace) above which there loomed a steep, unstable hillside. No landslide has yet swallowed up what little remains of the place.
posted by misteraitch at 1:59 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Christ, this is heartbreaking.
When one child's name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father said "No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board". The coroner replied: "I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying" but the father repeated:
'I want it recorded – "Buried alive by the National Coal Board." That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.'
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:14 AM on October 21, 2016 [47 favorites]


Children weren't worth as much 50 years ago as they are today. Childhood itself is a fairly recent 'invention'.

I think you are experiencing some historical foreshortening here. People in 1966 didn't view their kids as like little draft horses.
posted by thelonius at 2:19 AM on October 21, 2016 [35 favorites]


Mercifully, the proposal was never acted upon. The NCB initially offered £50 before raising it to the "generous offer" of £500.

Next sentence:
A more substantial sum, it was advised, would have destroyed the working class recipients not used to large amounts of money.
Bless 'em. Saving people from themselves. Heaven forfend, the recent pre-Aberfan darling of the tabloids, Viv "Spend, spend, spend" Nicholson was more than enough.
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:21 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Gods. The pic of the tips above the village. I mean..."What could happen?", right? The ability of man to blind himself to the obviousness of his folly is without limit, isn't it?

I find it odd to think that such lovely hillsides had no economic value even then.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:07 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Close The Coalhouse Door
posted by Emma May Smith at 3:43 AM on October 21, 2016


Me: Children weren't worth as much 50 years ago as they are today. Childhood itself is a fairly recent 'invention'.

thelonius: I think you are experiencing some historical foreshortening here. People in 1966 didn't view their kids as like little draft horses.

I'm sorry. I was insensitive. And now that you have articulated it, I was feeling some discordance when I wrote that comment. I wasn't coming from the perspective that parents devalued their children, but that the law did; the government did; and those who could have stopped it did. As ugly as it seems, the loss of a dependent child from a compensatory legal perspective (and therefore the investment in protecting them) is multitudes less than that of a providing adult. IE: legal damages are less for a child than an adult.
posted by Thella at 3:57 AM on October 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


Sorry, I am not sure if I was clearn in the comment above. I have ice-cream brain and I don't want to abuse the edit window.
posted by Thella at 4:00 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Didn't mean to be harsh-sounding, sorry. I have heard some of what you say, that "childhood" as we know it was constructed in the Victorian or Edwardian period before, and it is certainly true that the attitude about child labor was very harsh then, too. I'm just saying, that changed a long time before the 1960's, like starting in the late 9th Century, where you see the sufferings of children as a big motif in Charles Dickens, etc.
posted by thelonius at 4:12 AM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


I just read the Wikipedia entry but had never heard of the incident until today. I'm horrified at the scope of the disaster, and appalled that the warnings -- including by the school principal, who died along with so many children -- went unheeded. I'm with Thorzdad -- the photo of "let's pile loose mining waste on top of a hill overlooking a school" is more ominous than many horror movie posters.
posted by Gelatin at 4:38 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I had read about the disaster on Wikipedia before, but that BBC article ... Jesus. It's not often I have to close my office door because I'm sobbing.
On the morning of the disaster Janette was reluctant to leave the house.

“She wasn’t very good that morning; she didn’t want to go to school,” Marilyn says. “And Bernard was adamant and he had told her off a little bit.”

[...]

“I talk about Janette to [my other children],” Marilyn says. “She’s one of us, she’s mine, she’s ours she’ll always be ours won’t she?”

Tonight as with every other, Marilyn will go through her nightly ritual of turning to the photograph of Janette she keeps in her bedroom and wishing her goodnight.
o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
posted by brokkr at 5:09 AM on October 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


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I had never heard of this disaster before. What a terrible disaster.

Martha My Dear Prudence, thank you for the clear and specific content note which let me prepare to read this.
posted by brainwane at 5:43 AM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yes, I had to close down the BBC article too because I was crying so much. Heartbreaking.
posted by prune at 5:46 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


As bad as the extraction industries in general are, the coal industry worldwide seems to be uniquely callous in its disregard for human life. One more reason to stop using coal sooner rather than later.
posted by TedW at 6:12 AM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh god, Aberfan. I was 7 years old, and that was when I realized that children could die, even in the place where they should have been safest. I've been haunted by it ever since.
posted by jokeefe at 6:22 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


My Facebook feed is full of memorials, and it's been a sad, thoughtful morning. Thank you for making this post.
posted by kalimac at 6:23 AM on October 21, 2016


I've been horrified with the Aberfan disaster since I first saw the Life magazine issue and its photos.

The idea of a mining disaster completely sparing the miners and killing their children instead is the most
inconceivably horrific twist of fate I've ever read about.

Thanks for posting this Martha My Dear Prudence. I'll be thinking of this all day. Thinking of those families and that town.
posted by codex99 at 6:25 AM on October 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


I was 12, we didn't have a TV or get newspapers because we were too poor but I was aware of this as a massive national event, perhaps the biggest of my life, so coverage must have been everywhere. I found that excellent BBC story almost too painful to read.
posted by epo at 6:56 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


My Dad, who is not generally thought of as PC, is brought to tears by the mere mention of Aberfan. He remembers from his own working life people losing fingers from reaching into machinery on the orders of management, one lad being killed by a combine, and countless near-misses.

I only spent probably a total of about 4 years doing very light labourish jobs in my life (49 years old). I've seen two men have fingers ripped off in machines (don't wear rings in the industrial workplace people), a woman get a hand crushed between conveyor rollers, three coworkers slice tendons in their hands leaving them forever disabled and had my own wrist sliced open with pulsing blood spray that could have inspired Tarantino. I had a coworker drown in a truck trailer that should have been empty of C02 but wasn't and I've spent hours breathing in caustic acid fumes in temps well above 100F where the steel in my boots would heat up so we had to insulate them with layers of ripped up cardboard.

Health and Safety are good things. Anybody who tells you otherwise is evil.

Also if something doesn't feel right, walk away. There will be other jobs but not other lives.
posted by srboisvert at 7:28 AM on October 21, 2016 [24 favorites]


I read a book in sociology class in college about a disaster that happened in West Virginia. Coal slurry flooded a company town and killed (dozens?) of people. The book would have been written before 1998. Some of the book was about the disaster but it went into the structural aspects of generational poverty and company towns. Anyone know what I am talking about?
posted by AFABulous at 7:55 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


It sounds like the Buffalo Creek flood. The book might be Everything In Its Path.
posted by brokkr at 8:02 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Thanks brokkr, that's it. It's a devastating read.
posted by AFABulous at 8:26 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


And I got as far as

"“Each night before we left and the night shift took over, he would go round cwtching (a Welsh term for cuddle or comfort) the children and tuck in the blankets covering their bodies. It was a long cold night ahead.”

and suddenly someone started cutting onions
posted by lloyder at 8:26 AM on October 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


. x 50

There was an article on BBC news 24 about how some of the money raised was used by the coal board to clear up the devastation. Utterly shocking, and morally bankrupt.
posted by marienbad at 8:29 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I got to the end and just wanted to note that the BBC story was written by Ceri Jackson. Searching for her other work brings up other fine pieces for BBC Wales.
posted by epo at 8:44 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Those poor people, and fuck Lord Curzon.
posted by maxwelton at 9:53 AM on October 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


The authorities who presided over all this should have been treated like the ranking SS officers captured after WW II.

That they weren't indicts our entire society, our whole civilization.
posted by jamjam at 9:54 AM on October 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


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posted by fiercecupcake at 9:57 AM on October 21, 2016


I remember hearing about it in San Francisco. We had a shortwave and my mother listened to BBC Home Service daily.
Two ladies we slightly knew had family members lost because they were from Aberfan.

posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:51 AM on October 21, 2016


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posted by twilightlost at 12:07 PM on October 21, 2016


Trust the BBC to milk it for emotion at every turn.
What happened was a disaster, but the same thing could easily happen in many many other places.
My mother and her brother and sisters went to that school and the mine was there then and most of the people there worked for the mine. Like a lot of disasters, the cause was building up for many,many years and was triggered by an ususual weather event. There was no way anyone could have foreseen it.
posted by Burn_IT at 1:07 PM on October 21, 2016


There was no way anyone could have foreseen it.

Perhaps witchcraft or other supernatural forces were behind the people who warned about it in 1963 through 1965, then, as mentioned in the "Background" section in the wikipedia article.
posted by hades at 1:48 PM on October 21, 2016 [13 favorites]


While the disaster has been predicted, there were many who didn't expect it to have such terrible consequences. Quotes from Aberfan Disaster page:

"I never expected it would cross the embankment behind the village"
Tip gang chargehand

"It never dawned on me or came to my thoughts, sir, that it had gone as far as the village."
Tip worker

"Nobody told me what had happened at the time. I asked somebody next to me, it must have been a couple of hours later, he said "What is this stuff?"; I did not know myself what it was, and I was under the impression it was an explosion of gas. I did not think the tip had slipped; I did not realise anything about the tip. It must have been a good two hours when somebody said "it’s the tip that has slipped." I did not know; I was just knocked for six; I did not realise that it was that."
Bereaved parent

posted by hat_eater at 2:14 PM on October 21, 2016


Burn_IT: "Like a lot of disasters, the cause was building up for many,many years and was triggered by an ususual weather event."
BBC: True, it had been raining, heavily, but not unseasonably so for the area and the time of year.
Burn_IT: "There was no way anyone could have foreseen it."
BBC: Lord Robens insisted to reporters that it was “impossible to know that there was a spring in the heart of this tip”. It was an incendiary statement given that everyone else seemed to know and Ordnance Survey maps proved it.
posted by brokkr at 2:17 PM on October 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


.

I'd never heard of this. what a tragedy on so many levels, extending so many years afterward (and yes, even before)...

so, what happens when we do not recognize basic human emotions and others' emotional tolls? cartoonishly evil and yet horrifically real people rise to power. they're emboldened by institutional sway, and they _willfully_ ignore the plights of others. or bureaucrats address it, at most, by crunching people into pound signs.

certainly the BBC article is a 'human story', as far as emotional bias, but it seems to lay the facts pretty plainly -- personally I didn't find it to "milk," even as my own tears were welling up. the Wikipedia is no less devastating, if one prefers more neutral framing.

thank you for the link.
posted by cluebucket at 6:39 PM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Aberfan: The Green Hollow broadcast last night and featuring Michael Sheen and Jonathan Pryce among others. (Caution, probably milks the death of children for emotion.)
posted by epo at 6:54 AM on October 22, 2016


Unbearably tragic. I took a train once through Wales, feasting on the riot of green, blissfully ignorant of the coal mining history of the region.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:19 AM on October 22, 2016


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The rich get richer, and the others die to make it so.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:29 AM on October 22, 2016


.Trust the BBC to milk it for emotion at every turn.
What happened was a disaster, but the same thing could easily happen in many many other places.


Typical news organisations, reporting on the accidents that do kill children instead of the millions each second that didn't happen and nobody died.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:33 PM on October 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


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