Aberfan – An avoidable disaster that wiped out a generation

Aberfan Memorial
Aberfan Memorial

It is that time of year when I take time to remember those that died in the Aberfan disaster.

On October 21st 1966 an event occurred that scarred a South Wales community and cruelly took away 144 of its inhabitants, including 116 children.

The village of Aberfan was dominated by the Merthyr Vale colliery; a coal mine that provided employment or economic sustenance for almost all of its population; as other mines did for the rest of the South Wales valleys.

Even though health and safety standards and mortality rates in mining had substantially improved over the preceding decades, it was recognised that mining in the 1960’s was still a very dangerous occupation with the prospect of serious injury or death looming to all those who ventured underground.

But this was a risk that the men and boys of Aberfan were willing to take, to provide security and better lives for their families; which makes the circumstances of this disaster even more tragic; for while they were toiling underground, the huge amount of sodden coal waste that had been recklessly dumped on the valley hillside,  made its way down the mountain in the form of an avalanche, that engulfed everything in its path.

One of the buildings that was submerged was Pantglas Primary School, which was full of the local children, who were receiving those crucial early years of education; which for the boys would perhaps give them that start in life which could lead to an adulthood that didn’t involve working down the pits.

Almost half of the children in the school perished, despite the heroic attempts of the men who were called from the mine who were called to join in the rescue attempts… not that any of them required asking, as most knew they were looking for family members or close friends.

Also, as news of the tragedy grew, help was quick to arrive from surrounding valleys communities.

I grew up less than a mile from the disaster site and the memories of that October morning in 1966 are still deeply embedded in the villages and people in and around Aberfan.  Even though I wasn’t born at the time, it hits home when I think that I should have been in high school with the kids of those children that died in Pantglas Primary.

The memorial which now occupies the site of the school and the haunting graves of the victims of the disaster, which are only a stones throw away; act as a permanent reminder of a tragedy that should never have happened; and as we approach the 50th anniversary it is as important as ever to remember that cruel theft of innocence from the people of Aberfan.

The pits have now all but disappeared from the South Wales valleys, and Aberfan / Merthyr Vale act as commuter villages for those working in Merthyr and Cardiff; as there is very little employment or industry left in the community except for a leisure centre, which was paid for with some of the money kindly donated by people from around the world; and a few shops and pubs.

What I hope will never be taken away from the valleys is the strong sense of community; and even if the memories of this disaster are still painful, it is also important to remember with pride the manner in which everyone pulled together to support and care for those who were left behind.

In loving memory of the 144 victims of Aberfan, and heartfelt sympathy to all those that were affected by the disaster.