The Coal Tragedy That Killed More Than 100 Children

The Coal Tragedy That Killed More Than 100 Children

Rescue workers at the scene of the wrecked Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, South Wales, where a coal tip collapsed killing 144 people, mostly children.

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Why you should care

Because they should’ve seen it coming.

It sounded like a bomb had gone off outside the school. But inside, 8-year-old Gaynor Minett was struck by the quiet. “You could hear a pin drop,” she recalls. Sensing danger, she rose from her desk and looked out the window, where she saw nothing but a sea of black. She tried to make a break for the door, but it was too late.

Gaynor, who awoke to “an absolute nightmare,” was one of the lucky ones — unlike her siblings, Marylyn, 10, and Carl, 7, and the 142 others who perished on October 21, 1966. The Welsh morning, though typically dark and misty, had begun with such promise: The pupils were excited because it was their last before half-term break. Shortly after starting their lessons, however, the local colliery waste tip — refuse from the coal mine piled high on the ridge overlooking the village — collapsed and careened into Pantglas Junior School, wiping out scores of schoolchildren in seconds and leaving a community in tatters for years.

They still have nightmares, and some of them are resentful of the way the disaster has cast a shadow over the whole of their lives.

Gaynor (now Madgwick) found herself pinned in the back of the classroom, surrounded by slurry and bodies and waiting to be rescued — corpses and survivors were carried out, one at a time, via a human chain of volunteers, many of whom were miners and parents. She remembers holding and pinching the lifeless hand of a child, mostly buried in the debris, and it comforts her to think it might have been her brother Carl. Because the coal waste hit with such force, most were killed instantly. Gaynor’s femur was broken, and her shoes were knocked clean off. “I remember thinking my mother will kill me if I lost my shoes because we only had one pair.” Later, at the hospital, where she would spend months recovering, her parents arrived, informing her that she’d lost two siblings and most of her friends in the tragedy.

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Helpers fill sandbags on the tip above shattered Pantglas Junior School to divert a spring and avert the risk of further landslides at Aberfan, South Wales.

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“You’re not the same child,” she says of the aftermath. “Our family household was broken,” she explains, noting how she had no friends to play with after the disaster. She has recently written Aberfan: A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britain’s Worst Disasters, a book she hopes will help other victims of trauma heal. Fifty years on, many of the survivors — now middle-aged — still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, says Martin Johnes, history professor at the University of Swansea. “They still have nightmares, and some of them are resentful of the way the disaster has cast a shadow over the whole of their lives.”

Their resentment stems from the fact that it was an avoidable tragedy. Coal mine heaps had been piling up on the sides of Welsh mountains — the valley floors are too narrow to hold them — and the occasional heap had collapsed before, killing a child decades earlier. In Aberfan, in South Wales, seven coal heaps, climbing to 150 feet, overshadowed the village. “For a few years, bits of it had been washing down, and people had been complaining that it was unsafe,” says Johnes. There were safety measures for such things, but they had not been implemented in Aberfan, he explains.

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A mass funeral for 81 of the 144 children and adults who perished after a landslide engulfed the junior school.

Source George Freston/Getty

Adding insult to injury? It took a year for the National Coal Board to accept liability, which meant the ruined school was left as a constant reminder, with nobody to clean it up until it was determined who would foot the bill. Compensation paid to the victims’ families was meager, and the six other coal tips remained in place. “Not only did they cast a shadow over the community; they reminded people of what had happened,” Johnes says. The NCB insisted the piles were safe — villagers knew they weren’t — and the haggling exacerbated the suffering. After three years, the remaining six piles of slurry were removed, but only after a deal was struck between the coal board and the government, and, “worst of all, a contribution was taken from the disaster fund — money donated to the community and parents from around the world,” Johnes says. One injustice after another made it difficult for Aberfan’s survivors to move on or heal. Eventually an inquiry was held, and the NCB was found legally responsible, says Johnes, but no one was ever prosecuted — no individuals were found legally negligent.

Despite the obvious emotional toll, few spoke openly of the tragedy. Minett was offered counseling, for example, but only years after the accident, and the mental health tests involved left her feeling even more scarred. For some, the 50th anniversary last year was the first time they shared their personal stories. Even among fellow villagers, speaking about the disaster just wasn’t done in the early years. “The grief was so widespread,” Minett explains. “Everybody in Aberfan lost someone.”

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A memorial service at Aberfan cemetery to mark 50 years since the Aberfan tragedy on October 21, 2016, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.

Source Christopher Furlong/Getty

Still, from an unspeakable, and seemingly avoidable, tragedy rose a spirit of community among the brokenhearted. The village organized a young-mothers group and a men’s choir, bonfire nights and carnivals, to restore hope in Aberfan. Reflecting on her home, both then and today, Minett says that Aberfan is “a family that has grown, from this day until now, stronger together.”

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