The two vertical shafts of the Merthyr Vale Colliery, in the Taff River valley in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorganshire, Wales, were sunk between 1869–1875. It was among the largest of the hundreds of mines that opened during the industrial revolution to exploit the rich South Wales Coalfield. The town of Aberfan was founded sometime in the early 1900s and by the 1960s nearly 80% of the men in the town worked at Merthyr Vale.
Since the early 1900s the excavated rock, slag and other mining debris from Merthyr Vale was deposited in a series of waste piles, or tips, on Mynydd Merthyr ridge, some 600–1200 ft above the town. Tip no. 7, which was started in early 1958, was situated directly over natural springs in the sandstone bed. Although no. 7 had several minor slips over the years and the locals considered it unsafe, the tipping continued. By 1966 it was nearly 110 ft high and contained an estimated 300,000 m3 of waste, including nearly 30,000 m3 of particularly fine material known as tailings.
In the early morning hours of Friday, 21 Oct 1966 there was a small slip at no. 7, then around 9:25 am some 150,000 m3 of sludge and waste, supersaturated from the underground springs and recent heavy rains, broke free and surged down the 25% grade, destroying two Hafod-Tanglwys-Uchaf farm houses and immediately killing their occupants.1 At the bottom of the hill and the edge of the town the landslide destroyed 18 terrace houses, killing most of their occupants, and continued across Moy Road toward the Pantglas Junior School.
The school children had just returned to their classrooms after an assembly on the last day before mid-term break. Visibility in the town was so poor that morning that no one could see up Myndd Merthyr, but as the children later recalled, they could hear the landslide – it sounded as if a jet was crashing. Some 40,000 m3 of sludge enveloped the school, destroying the building and burying the classrooms under a 10m pile of slurry and debris.
In the chaotic minutes directly after the landslide mothers began digging, often by hand. A general alarm was sounded and the colliers swarmed down from the mine to form organized digging gangs. They would spend the next 24 hours searching for survivors and recovering bodies.
News spread quickly and in many cases people simply dropped what they were doing, grabbed a shovel, and went to Aberfan. By the next day the town was overrun with nearly 2000 volunteers, most of whom were just in the way of the organized rescue. But by then it didn’t matter – no child was pulled out of the school alive after 11:00 am on Friday. In all 144 people died in the landslide, including 116 children (109 from the Junior School – almost half of its enrollment).
Mining the South Wales Coalfield has always been particularly dangerous; 259 men died at the Prince of Wales Colliery in 1878, 290 at Albion in 1894, 439 at Senghenydd in 1913 and 266 the Gresford in 1934 to name but a few, but Aberfan was something else altogether. In an inconceivably horrible twist of fate, the disaster had completely spared the miners and instead killed their children. In the span of five minutes the town lost an entire generation.
The media scrum that descended on Aberfan was unprecedented, and much of the coverage was sensationalized and exploitative. One rescue worker recalled “...a photographer tell a kiddie to cry for her dead friends, so that he could get a good picture.” It was also one of the first tragedies in Britain that was nationally televised. The images here were photographed for Life magazine by Terence Spencer and Marvin Lichtner.2
1. The official inquiry, chaired by Privy Councillor Lord Justice Edmund Davies lasted for 76 days. It concluded that the collapse of the tip was caused by a rotational slip which caused the saturated tailings to thixotropically modify and flow down the hill. It also concluded that “the blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board,” and furthermore “the Aberfan Disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above”
2. “Disaster in Green Aberfan.” Life. 4 Nov 1966. Immediately after the disaster Life dispatched the 29 year-old photographer I. C. (Chuck) Rapoport to Wales from New York. Rapoport stayed long after the other media left, spending nearly a month in the town photographing not the disaster, but the people. The result was a moving series of photos capturing both the grief as well as the strength and courage of the residents. See: Rapoport, I. C. Aberfan: The Days After, A Journey in Pictures. Cardigan, Wales: Parthian Books, 2005:
12 Mar 2010, updated 22 Dec 2011 ‧ Photography