The Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures: The True Story of a Tragedy that Shook Wales in 1966In 1966, a small Welsh village was forever changed by a devastating event that shook the nation.

The Aberfan disaster, caused by the collapse of a colliery spoil tip, tragically claimed the lives of 144 people, most of them children.

This heartbreaking incident not only shed light on the dangers of coal mining but also showed a profound display of resilience and community spirit.

A group of young schoolchildren at Pantglas Junior School had just begun their math lessons when a terrifying rumble filled the air.

Within moments, tons of liquefied coal waste thundered down the hillside, crashing into the school building and nearby homes.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Aberfan in the days immediately after the disaster, showing the extent of the spoil slip.

Amidst the chaos, eight-year-old Jeff Edwards found himself trapped in a nightmare.

For almost two hours, he fought to breathe, pinned by his desk and surrounded by the lifeless bodies of his classmates. Jeff later recalled the desperation and fear that gripped him as he struggled to stay alive.

Finally, a firefighter spotted Jeff’s blonde hair sticking out from the rubble and pulled him to safety.

He was the last child to be rescued, the tenth and final survivor. The tragedy claimed the lives of 144 people, most of them children.

The Aberfan disaster, caused by a combination of heavy rain and a poorly positioned coal tip, remains one of the darkest chapters in British history. This is the true story of a tragedy that could’ve been prevented.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

How The Aberfan Disaster Happened

Coal was once the backbone of industry in South Wales, sustaining entire communities reliant on the high-grade steam (bituminous) coal located beneath the valleys and hills.

Among these communities was Aberfan, a village near Merthyr Tydfil, approximately 20 miles northwest of Cardiff, in the historic county of Glamorgan.

Established in 1875, Aberfan’s Merthyr Vale Colliery emerged as the largest pit in the South Wales Coalfield, generating vast amounts of waste.

For half a century this waste was dumped in spoil tips on the flanks of Merthyr Mountain, directly above Aberfan. The underlying geology of this area consisted of sandstone riddled with underground springs.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

The Aberfan Colliery spoil tramway in 1964, with spoil heaps at top left. The pennant sandstone building at mid-left is Pantglas County Secondary School, which lies adjacent to the junior school.

There were seven spoil tips on the hills above Aberfan; Tip 7—the one that slipped onto the village—was started in 1958 and, at the time of the disaster, was 111 feet (34 m) high.

In contravention of the National Coal Board’s (NCB) procedures, the tip was partly based on ground from which springs emerged.

After three weeks of heavy rain the tip was saturated and approximately 140,000 cubic yards (110,000 m3) of spoil slipped down the side of the hill and onto the Pantglas area of the village.

The flow destroyed two water mains buried in the embankment and the additional water further saturated the spoil.

Those who heard the avalanche said the sound reminded them of a low-flying jet or thunder.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Another bird’s eye view of the disaster.

The landslide struck Pantglas Junior School on Moy Road, demolishing much of the structure and burying classrooms in thick mud, sludge, and rubble.

The disaster claimed the lives of 109 children and five teachers out of the 240 who attended the school.

The students had just arrived for the last day before the half-term holiday, which was set to begin at noon. Teachers had barely started taking attendance when the landslide hit.

The adjacent secondary school suffered damage, and 18 houses on nearby roads were destroyed.

Mud and water from the slide flooded other houses, forcing many residents to evacuate. After the slide came to a halt, the material solidified, leaving a scene of devastation.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Aerial picture, taken from a plane, shows the town of Aberfan and aftermath of the slurry slide. (Photo by Ron Burton/Smithsonian Mag).

Some staff died trying to protect the children. Nansi Williams, the school meals clerk, used her body to shield five children, who all survived; Williams did not, and was found by rescuers still holding a pound note she had been collecting as lunch money.

Dai Beynon, the deputy headmaster, tried to use a blackboard to shield himself and five children from the slurry pouring through the school. He and all 34 pupils in his class were killed.

When the avalanche stopped, so did the noise; one resident recalled that “in that silence you couldn’t hear a bird or a child”.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

The mountain of coal waste slipped and thundered towards Pantglas Junior School just moments after the children had arrived. (Photo by BBC/PA).

The Rescue Efforts

Many in Aberfan heard the ominous rumble, but the mist meant nothing could be seen.

Before evasive action could be taken, the school was engulfed. Villagers raced to the scene and started digging with their hands, soon joined by rescue personnel, but few children were pulled alive from the slurry.

The 10:30 am BBC news summary led with the story of the disaster.

The result was that thousands of volunteers traveled to Aberfan to help, although their efforts often hampered the work of the experienced miners or trained rescue teams.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

A frantic rescue effort took place to try and save the children trapped in the school. (Photo by BBC/PA).

A makeshift mortuary was set up in the village’s Bethania Chapel on 21 October and operated until 4 November, 250 meters from the disaster site; members of the Glamorgan Constabulary force assisted with the identification and registration of the victims.

Two doctors examined the bodies and issued death certificates; the cause of death was typically asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries.

Cramped conditions in the chapel meant that parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify the bodies of their children.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Before the slip.

A coroner’s inquest was opened on 24 October to give the causes of death for 30 of the children located.

One man who had lost his wife and two sons called out when he heard their names mentioned: “No, sir—buried alive by the National Coal Board”; one woman shouted that the NCB had “killed our children”.

The first funerals, for five of the children, took place the following day. A mass funeral for 81 children and one woman took place at Bryntaf Cemetery in Aberfan on 27 October.

They were buried in a pair of 80-foot-long (24 m) trenches; 10,000 people attended.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

After the slip.

Because of the vast quantity and consistency of the spoil, it was a week before all the bodies were recovered; the last victim was found on 28 October.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Aberfan on 29 October to pay their respects to those who had died.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

The landslide caused Tip 7 to collapse, pouring tons of coal waste into Aberfan.

The Aftermath

National Coal Board Chairman Lord Robens suggested that the disaster could not have been predicted, despite frequent safety concerns.

However, the official inquiry, led by Lord Justice Edmund Davies, placed the blame squarely on the NCB.

The organization’s chairman, Lord Robens, faced criticism for making misleading statements and failing to clarify the NCB’s awareness of water springs on the hillside.

Despite these findings, neither the NCB nor any of its employees were prosecuted, and the organization did not receive any fines.

Controversially, the board appropriated money from the disaster fund—subscribed by the public for victims and their families—to help pay for clearance of remaining tips.

Queen Elizabeth II visited the site eight days after the disaster, a delay that occasioned criticism and for which she later expressed regret.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

The rescue of a young girl from the school; no survivors were found after 11:00 am.

During the rescue, the shock and grief of parents and villagers was exacerbated by insensitive behavior from the media—one rescue worker recalled hearing a press photographer asking a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture.

The response of the general public in donating to the memorial fund, together with over 50,000 letters of condolence that accompanied many of the donations, helped many residents come to terms with the disaster.

One bereaved mother said “People all over the world felt for us. We knew that with their letters and the contributions they sent … They helped us build a better Aberfan.”

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

The spoil heaps at Aberfan in 1968. George Thomas, the Secretary of State for Wales, described them as “a psychological, emotional danger”; Tip 5 is furthest from the camera.

The residents of Aberfan experienced medical problems after the disaster.

Many survivors reported having “sleeping difficulties, nervousness, lack of friends, unwillingness to go to school and enuresis”.

In the year following the tip slide, close relatives of the victims had a death rate seven times higher than the norm.

One local doctor later wrote “By every statistic, patients seen, prescriptions written, deaths, I can prove that this is a village of excessive sickness.”

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Residents digging through mining waste that inundated Aberfan, Wales, on October 21, 1966. (Photo by Britannica/Ron Burton)

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Recovery efforts focused on Pantglas Junior School, where over 100 children were trapped when disaster struck.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

An aerial photograph showcasing the devastation in Aberfan.

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

Inhabitants of the Welsh mining village of Aberfan attend the mass funeral for 81 of the 190 children and adults who perished when a landslide engulfed the junior school. (Photo by George Freston/Smithsonian Mag).

Aberfan Disaster Through Pictures

The white arches in Bryntaf Cemetery, Aberfan, which mark the graves of children killed in the disaster.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Britannica / Smithsonian Mag).