Let me begin at the end. On October 21, 1966, 116 children and 28 adults were killed in a small village in Wales, in an entirely preventable, manmade accident. And, despite the public outcry and grief at this tragedy, it was not until eight days later that Queen Elizabeth II came to pay a condolence visit. Years later, she admitted that was the biggest regret of her reign.
But that is not the whole story. It never is.
Situated next to the Merthyr Vale Colliery mine, near Merthyr Tydfil, the tiny village of Aberfan was home to some 8,000 coal miners and their families. The industrial revolution had relied heavily on coal, and Wales had plenty of coal. Even as late as the 1920s, more than a quarter of a million people worked in coal pits. But by the 1960s coal had been largely replaced by other fuel sources and the mining industry was in decline. The coal industry had been nationalized in 1947, so the mine was under the jurisdiction of the National Coal Board (NCB).
For decades, the waste from the chemical extraction of coal from the Merthyr Vale mine had been dumped in one of seven tips – large piles of rock, spoil and tailings (fine particles of coal and ash) on the slopes of the Taff Valley. Tip 7 was started in 1958. It was situated on ground where springs emerged, which was known to be dangerous even when they began piling up the coal waste there. But Tips 4 and 5 were also built on streams or springs, and that never caused any problems – except for once in November 1944, when part of Tip 4 slid 490 meters (1,600 feet) down the slope, stopping only 150 meters (500 feet) above the village of Aberfan.
In November 1963, Tip 7 began a short slide towards the village, but the NCB declared it was not really a “slide” and that it was perfectly safe to continue piling up more debris on the pile. In 1965, the village council held talks with the NCB about “The Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools.” The NCB agreed to unblock pipes and drainage ditches, but never actually got around to doing anything.
By 1966, Tip 7 was the only one still in use. It had grown to an incredible height of 34 meters (111 feet) and contained 227,000 cubic meters (297,000 cubic yards) of waste.
Anyone who has visited Wales knows that it is famous for its rain. During the first three weeks of October, 1966, 170mm (6.5 inches) of rain fell on Aberfan.
At 9:15am on October 21, the water-saturated debris started its inevitable slide down the hill. Waves of coal waste reaching 6-9 meters in height (20-30 feet) raced down the slope at more than 18 kilometers per hour (11 miles per hour). It was unstoppable.
At the investigation afterwards, one of the engineers at the site testified that, “almost instantaneously the nature of the saturated lower parts of Tip No. 7 was changed from that of a solid to that of a heavy liquid of a density of approximately twice that of water.”
With the sound of thunder, approximately 110,000 cubic meters (140,000 cubic yards) of black, deadly spoil hurtled down the mountain, destroying two farm cottages, crashing through the houses on the other side of Moy Road, and slamming into Pantglas Junior School.
It was the last day before mid-term holiday, so the pupils arrived excited and happy, looking forward to the last half-day of school.
Eight-year-old Jeff Edwards had walked to school, stopping at the tuck shop to buy sweets and then took his usual place at his desk. Fifty-five years later, Edwards told the BBC:
One minute you were a young lad looking forward to the half-term holidays, waiting for the lesson to start and the next minute I had death on my shoulder and had to grow up very, very quickly. My life had totally changed.
Gaynor Madgwick was also eight. She was sitting waiting for her math lesson to being when:
Within seconds this noise appeared completely from nowhere. It was the most horrific noise, thunder – louder, louder and louder. I remember turning my head seeing this black mass and trying to get up and run for the door. Then it was blackout. It literally froze people in their seats.
Then, after the thunder – silence. “Everything was so quiet,” Cyril Vaughan, a teacher at the nearby senior school, said. “[It was] as if nature had realized that a tremendous mistake had been made and nature was speechless.”
As soon as the landslide stopped, the residents began to rescue the survivors. Miners rushed from the mines and dug out the children as quickly as they could, only to discover most of them had not survived. The New York Times reported that:
Civil defense teams, miners, policemen, firemen and other volunteers toiled desperately, sometimes tearing at the coal rubble with their bare hands, to extricate the children.
Mansel Aylward was a medical student, driving home to Merthyr Tydfil when police stopped his car and told him what had happened. When they realized he was almost a doctor they sent him to the site. He recalled:
All the children were at their desks and they were covered in sludge, mud and had obviously died by suffocation. The teacher was dead as well, and he was standing in front of the children with his arms out, as if trying to protect them. That really, really affected me.
Edwards was the last surviving child to be rescued, two hours after the disaster had begun. By then there were no more ambulances, so he was taken to hospital in a grocer’s van.
Terrified parents lined up outside the school to find out if their children were among the dead. Unfortunately, very few children survived. The rescuers kept digging for hours, but they found nobody else alive.
A disaster fund was set up, and within a few months almost 88,000 people had contributed £1,606,929 for those who suffered due to the tragedy.
An inquiry was quickly launched, which found that the NCB was responsible for the disaster. They had placed the tip in an unsafe place, ignored warning signs, and failed to ensure the safety of the residents of Aberfan.
Writing on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, Welsh newsreader and presenter Huw Edwards stated:
Aberfan was a man-made disaster. This is a fact that often needs underlining. No amount of dissembling and sophistry from the men of the National Coal Board (NCB) could disguise that central fact. There was nothing “natural” about it, nothing freakish about the geology of Aberfan, nothing uniquely unforeseeable about the deadly slide. It happened because of a mix of negligence, arrogance and incompetence for which no individual was punished or even held to account.
Lord Alfred Robens had been a Member of Parliament from 1950-1060. In 1961, he was appointed as chair of the NCB. Although a member of the Labour Party and a socialist, he oversaw significant cuts to the mining industry. During his decade at the helm, the number of mines fell from 698 to 292, and the workforce had more than halved.
On the day of the Aberfan disaster, Robens was being installed as the first Chancellor of the University of Surrey, so he did not come to visit the scene of the tragedy until late the following day.
Following the disaster, the NCB was told to remove the remain tips from the slopes above Aberfan. However, he protested that it would be too expensive to do so. Eventually, the NCB and government covered part of the cost, but they also pressured the trustees of the Disaster Fund to contribute £150,000 from the charity money donated by the public for the victims and their family.
Much later, the tribunal investigating the disaster was highly critical of Robens. If he had simply admitted that the NCB was at fault, most of the inquiry would have been unnecessary. The Tribunal also stated that:
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. Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.
Unbelievably, in 1969, just before leaving the NCB, Robens was appointed to lead a committee on workplace health and safety. In the 1972 Robens Report, he championed the idea of self-regulation by employers.
On October 22, the day after the tragedy, the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip made a visit to Aberfan. But Her Majesty did not come herself until a week later, on October 29. Her advisors told her that arranging a royal visit would delay rescue and cleanup efforts, and slow down identification and burial of the survivors. So she waited.
According to WalesOnline:
The Queen was informed of the tragedy and asked if it would help if she came to share the grief of her people. Prince Philip came as an advance party on the Saturday morning and quietly moved among the villagers offering words of condolence before returning to Buckingham Palace and telling Her Majesty it would be more appropriate for her to wait.
That eight-day delay was one of Queen Elizabeth’s lifelong regrets. But to the residents of Aberfan, she did exactly the right thing.
In British Pathé footage, the 40-year-old monarch appears visibly moved as she meets with survivors and relatives of those who perished. Her own younger children, Andrew and Edward were only six and two respectively, the same ages as some of those who had died. According to her biographer, the Queen said, “Perhaps they’ll miss some poor child that might have been found under the wreckage.”
“To me that day, she didn’t come as the Queen, our monarch, she came as a mother, to sympathise, to empathise, to really appreciate what everybody had been through that day,” said resident Denise Morgan.
Edwards remembered the Queen’s visit:
We know she did cry, because she went to Jim Williams’ house – and when she came down from the cemetery she was visibly crying.
She walked around the village, speaking with the residents. She laid a bouquet in the cemetery. She met one woman who had lost seven members of her family. The Queen sat with her, sharing her grief silently, for half an hour.
Royal press secretary, William Heseltine, said, “Aberfan affected the Queen very deeply, I think, when she went there. It was one of the few occasions in which she shed tears in public.”
The Queen returned to Aberfan three more times afterwards. And the disaster was always in her mind. She was unable to attend the 50th anniversary commemoration, but she sent a message, which read in part:
I well remember my own visit with Prince Philip after the disaster, and the posy I was given by a young girl, which bore the heart-breaking inscription, “From the remaining children of Aberfan.
Since then, we have returned on several occasions and have always been deeply impressed by the remarkable fortitude, dignity and indomitable spirit that characterises the people of this village and the surrounding valleys.
On this saddest of anniversaries, I send my renewed good wishes to you all.
Perhaps the most important thing any leader must do is care for those under them. And one of the ways to demonstrate that to the people is to be there for them in times of trouble. Not far away in a palace or a corporate office, but at the scene of the disaster, sharing the pain and anguish of the masses.
In last week’s blog, I claimed that the final suffering of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt was partially due to Moses ignoring God’s plan and trying to do things his own way. And when things went wrong, instead of accepting responsibility, Moshe ran away and complained to God (Exodus 5:22):
Moses returned to God and said, ‘God, why have You done evil to this people, why did send me?’
We are not told where Moses returned to, but my understanding of the Rashbam’s commentary is that he went back to the site of the burning bush, the only place he had ever spoken to God before.
Which is why Rashbam, in his commentary at the beginning of this week’s portion of Vaera, stresses that God spoke to Moses in Egypt. He writes just a couple of words that speak volumes (Rashbam commentary on Exodus 6:2):
God spoke to Moses: In the land of Egypt.
Unspoken and an unwritten, between the end of last week’s portion and the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, God explains to Moses that as leader, he cannot only be there for the good times but must even more importantly be there with the people in their time of suffering.
Moses had good reasons for leaving Egypt and going back to the burning bush. He did not know there was any other way of speaking to God. He thought he needed to plead the case of the Israelites before the Almighty. He felt he was only making things worse by staying in Egypt.
But, instead of answering him through the bush, God only spoke to him again once Moses had realized the importance of going back to his suffering people. Maybe Moses couldn’t do anything for them. Maybe he felt he was in the way. But as leader, his place was at their side. Perhaps he could do nothing but sit with them and cry, but that would have meant everything.
Only once he had returned to Egypt, did God promise to bring the Israelites to the land of Israel, based on His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Moses learned his lesson. From that time on, he was always with the Israelites. No matter how difficult, no matter how painful, Moses never abandoned them until the day of his death. He understood the role of the leader in public life.
Today, some countries are fortunate enough to have leaders who show they care about their people. Other countries have different kinds of leaders. As individuals, there is very little we can do about the kinds of leaders we have.
But as individuals, we can strive to act as leaders should. To be there for our friends not only in good times but also in bad. When tragedy strikes others, we sometimes feel uncomfortable and insecure. We don’t know what to say or do. Occasionally, we are so scared of saying or doing the wrong thing that we end up running away and shunning the person we love.
I recently listened to the actor Richard E Grant on Desert Island Discs. He spoke about the recent illness death of his wife, and how kind and loving people were. For example, Nigella Lawson cooked food for the family every week.
And his advice to everyone was:
Don’t cross the street and think, ‘Oh, if I say something to this person they will fall apart like a blubbering jelly. Don’t ignore the fact that that person is either ill or that person has died. Because if you ignore it, it feels as though that person’s life didn’t count, or didn’t register. And that feels more hurtful.
The Queen’s empathy and humanity in 1966 helped the people of Aberfan cope with their tragedy. God made sure Moses understood that his role was to always be with his people. And each of us can make a difference to those we love by being there for them in times of difficulty. There is no right thing to say or do. Just be there with them. And through that, show that you care.