Aberfan Disaster, October 21, 1966
The deaths of 20 small children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last week was sufficiently shocking to dislodge from my memory reminders of another appalling tragedy that horrified me when I was just a boy, and continues to haunt me still, when scores of young school children once again had to pay the price for the greed and complacency of adults.
Aberfan is a tiny Welsh coal mining village founded shortly after the Merthyr Vale colliery was started in 1869. As Brett Cherry and Dave Petley describe in "Remembering Aberfan," the village was a close knit community of miners and their families sufficiently large to sustain both a primary and a secondary school.
Disposing of coal waste, or slag, is a recurring problem in mining since the material has little economic value and so is commonly piled up in ugly heaps close to the mines that produce them. In Aberfan, coal waste was dumped on the hillsides above the village, eventually forming seven separate piles, or "tips."
At around 9:15 on the morning of Friday, October 21, 1966, the students at the Pantglas Junior School had just arrived in their classrooms following morning assembly where the children sang "All Creatures Great and Small," when they heard a strange rumbling sound as lights hanging from long wires from the ceiling began to sway.
Tip Seven, 40 meters high and crammed with 230,000 cubic meters of coal waste saturated from an underground spring and two days of heavy rain had given way and was steamrolling down the hill as a 30-foot high wave of coal, mud and water toward the unsuspecting school below.
According to Cherry and Petley, most witnesses report hearing a noise like a jet plane passing low over the village. Others describe seeing a wave of debris, higher than a house, moving fast and demolishing houses "like a pile of dominoes."
The tidal wave of muck "behaved like a liquid, but with twice the density of water, sufficient to demolish everything in its path," the authors say. Some victims who escaped the main flow were injured by flying debris.
By the time the landslide subsided it had demolished the Pantglas school along with a farm and 18 other houses. A total of 144 people were killed, 116 of them children, the vast majority between the ages of seven and ten. Five of their teachers were also victims.
The death toll could have been much higher had not lessons for the secondary school started at 9:30, which meant that most of the school's older children were still arriving when the landslide struck.
Only 25 children who were present when the huge wave of slag engulfed the Pantglas school survived the catastrophe.
Gaynor Madgwick, then eight, lost a brother and sister. Years later she said: "The first I knew there was something wrong was when I heard a horrific, terrifying rumbling noise getting louder and louder. People were frozen to their seats with fright. I tried to run to the door, but then I saw the black coming through the windows."
Gaynor did not remember anything after that until she woke up. She'd been impaled against the back of the classroom by "the black" and was found on top of two boys who were dead.
"I sat there looking at everyone," said Gaynor. "We'd been engulfed in stuff that had the consistency of cement. It had steam coming off it. I picked up a book called Through the Garden Gate. It was full of blood, but I started to read it."
When rescuers began to appear, the first person Gaynor saw was her grandfather. "I never forgot the look on his face," she said.
"Before this event we stand breathless," eulogized Gwyn Thomas, the National Poet of Wales. "No touch of the whip hurts quite like this. A nation's heart can never be totally broken, for there are always some, through distance or indifference, on whom a grief will weigh less heavily than on others. But a nation's heart can be wounded. And such a wound is Aberfan."
They say that the sins of the father should not be visited upon his sons - or his daughters. But that has never been true.
A far higher percentage of first and second class women survived the Titanic disaster than did third class children, where 52 of 79 were lost. And the survival rate of first-class passengers versus third or "steerage" class was higher still, reflecting in part the caste-based prejudices of Edwardian Age England.
The chronicle of the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster follows this same familiar, tedious and depressing trajectory of criminal negligence, callous indifference and official buck-passing.
Indeed, 30 years after the 1966 disaster, Professors Iain McLean and Martin Johnes drew parallels between the Titanic and Aberfan catastrophes when they concluded that both were "disasters waiting to happen."
The two academics argued that those who died in the two tragedies were both "victims of an obstructive officialdom" that habitually seeks to "avoid criticism of themselves" in the aftermath of tragedy.
A major cause for the loss of life in the Titanic disaster were shipping regulations 20 years out of date - like those prescribing the number of lifeboats. So, too, the unregulated and uncontrolled tipping of waste on the hillside above Aberfan was an obvious, leading cause of the 1966 catastrophe, the professors said.
Yet, at Aberfan the National Coal Board attempted to blame the disaster on a geological fault while in 1912 a powerful shipping industry lobby tried to shift blame for the wreck of the Titanic in order to avoid tighter regulations.
"Like the children of Aberfan in 1966, the passengers on Titanic died of a lethal combination of bureaucratic lethargy and producer-group obstruction," McLean and Johnes said.
But even worse was the callousness displayed toward the victims.
What has always seemed impossible to me, if I did not know them to be true, were those stories of Titanic's White Star Line owners refusing to pay the dead crews' widows and orphans for services rendered past April 15, 1912 -- at 2:20 a.m. - the precise moment when the Titanic plunged beneath the waves. That outrage was only slightly less unforgivable than the invoice grieving relatives of Titanic's heroic band members received from the line's management demanding payment for lost uniforms.
The neglect of the children in Wales was equally appalling. Gaynor, who later underwent psychiatric counseling and treatment not given to any of the children traumatized by this horrific event, was among those survivors writer Laurie Lee later called the "unhealed scar tissue of Aberfan."
The National Coal Board was eventually forced to pay compensation for their negligence -- £1,000 to those who had lost one or more children. It wasn't much. And according to Cherry and Petley, a board document released under England's freedom of information act 30-years after the disaster showed London authorities "felt a more substantial sum would have destroyed the working-class beneficiaries because they would not be used to large amounts of money."
Some things never change.
Grieving villagers who lost children had to dip into the charitable donations sent to them by well-wishers around world in order to pay the £150,000 necessary to remove the remaining slag heaps that still towered ominously on the hills overlooking their village.
Two decades later, one of the first acts of the newly-elected Labor Government was to repay Aberfan the £150,000 to help with the upkeep of the community center and memorial garden erected on the site of the Pantglas Junior School and the large children's cemetery overlooking the valley.
Catastrophe rarely has a single cause. In each case, a unique sequence of mistakes, both large and small, inexorably forms a chain of causality that, in the words of Gwyn Thomas, wound a nation's heart.
And so in Newtown, Connecticut 20 first graders are now dead. Their deaths, like the deaths of the children on Titanic and those in Aberfan, were the last link in a chain forged by adults who failed to do "our first job," as President Obama called it, which is the protection of our children. Instead, we enabled a seriously disturbed young man to become a weapon of mass destruction.
The greed of weapons manufacturers who want to sell more guns to more people no matter the consequences, combined with the indifference of an NRA which thinks the way to stem gun violence is to give everyone a gun, combined with the cowardice of politicians who refuse to stand up to these merchants of death, empowered a madman to use weapons designed to make war to make war on our children.
Shame on us.