10 Facts About the Aberfan Disaster of 1966

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In season 3 of The Crown, viewers witness a harrowing re-creation of the 1966 Aberfan disaster—a catastrophic landslide that killed 144 residents (most of whom were children) in a small village in South Wales. Though it seemed at first to have been an unforeseeable geological accident, the world soon discovered that there was much more to the story.

From the illuminating inquiry that took place in the aftermath to Queen Elizabeth II’s somber visit to the disaster scene, here is some additional history about the tragic event.

1. Aberfan residents had complained about the danger of coal tips.

The village of Aberfan, South Wales, was established around the Merthyr Vale coal mine, which had been depositing its waste materials into giant heaps known as coal tips since 1869.

Coal Tip 7, which was started in 1958, was especially worrying to the people of Aberfan for two reasons: It was built on top of porous sandstone and underwater springs, and it was located right behind a school.

“I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain,” a waterworks engineer wrote to the district’s public works superintendent in 1963 before escalating the matter to the National Coal Board, which failed to halt operations.

2. On October 21, 1966, coal tip 7 finally collapsed.

On a Friday morning around 9:15 a.m., after days of heavy rain, the 111-foot-tall coal tip 7—which was comprised of about 300,000 cubic yards of waste—became a landslide that crashed into Pantglas Junior School and its surrounding buildings at speeds of up to 50 mph.

3. The landslide wasn’t silent.

Though they didn’t know the source of the deafening rumble at the time, survivors of the disaster compared the sound of the avalanche to the roar of a low-flying jet or loose trams hurtling downhill.

4. Of the 144 casualties, 116 were children.

Pantglas Junior School was the main building affected by the catastrophic collapse. Of the school's 240 students, most of whom were between 7 and 11 years old, 116 died in the landslide, along with five teachers and 28 residents of nearby farm cottages and terrace houses. The youngest victim was 3 months old and the oldest was 82 years old. The official causes of death were primarily classified as "suffocation," "multiple injuries," or "skull fractures," but one man—who lost both his wife and two sons in the accident—very publicly urged authorities to change the death certificates to read "buried alive by the National Coal Board."

5. Disaster responders flooded the town to help organize rescue efforts.

As firefighters, police, medical personnel, and other disaster responders worked tirelessly around the clock to clear debris and rescue survivors from the decimated buildings, the rest of the town helped manage the chaos. Bodies were taken to Bethania Chapel (which was destroyed by an arsonist in 2015), where volunteers cleaned the coal from them and escorted parents around to identify them. A local chip shop became the distribution center for death certificates.

"There were no council offices nearby and someone must have said ‘the chip shop—everyone knows that,'" Detective Inspector Charles Nunn, who helped organize the chapel mortuary, told the BBC. "It was the most efficient way. It seems so incongruous now."

6. Princess Margaret encouraged people to send toys to the surviving children.

After the landslide, Princess Margaret asked people to "think of the loneliness of the brothers, sisters, and young relatives who survived" and send toys to them. The response was so overwhelming that the post office in Cardiff—Wales's capital city, which is located about 20 miles south of Aberfan—had to store them in four empty buildings.

7. Queen Elizabeth II visited Aberfan eight days after the landslide.

Prince Philip and then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson both visited Aberfan within 24 hours of the disaster, but the Queen herself didn’t make an appearance until eight days later—a delay that she reportedly told her private secretary, Lord Martin Charteris, was her “biggest regret.” During her visit, she toured the town with her husband, spoke with bereaved families, and had tea with town Councillor Jim Williams, who had lost seven family members in the landslide. Before she left, 3-year-old Karen Jones gave the Queen a small bouquet with a card that read: "From the remaining children of Aberfan."

8. Queen Elizabeth has made several more trips to Aberfan since the disaster.

queen elizabeth II's tree at aberfan memorial garden
The tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II in the memorial garden.

While the Queen may have felt that she made a mistake in waiting so long to visit Aberfan the first time, the townspeople have expressed gratitude over the years for her continued efforts to commemorate the disaster and support the community. She returned in 1973 to open a community center, visited again in 1997 to plant a tree in the Garden of Remembrance, and most recently returned in 2012 to open a new school.

9. Villagers petitioned to have the remaining coal tips removed.

Even after the disaster, officials assured the public that the mountains of coal waste weren’t dangerous—but Aberfan residents were (understandably) adamant about their removal, and even went so far as to dump heaps of slurry in the Welsh Office’s reception area in protest. After that, Wales’s secretary of state George Thomas agreed to get rid of them.

However, Thomas was hardly the hero of this story: Removing the coal tips was a costly process, and Thomas ultimately decided that the bill could and should be footed by the residents of Aberfan. His decision to present the grieving townspeople with a bill for £250,000 (which would be just under $6 million in today's dollars) was met with a universally negative backlash. Especially since the money, which Thomas dubbed a "local contribution," was to be paid out of a charitable fund that had been established to help rebuild the town.

10. A tribunal found the National Coal Board guilty of “bungling ineptitude.”

On October 26, 1966, the Welsh government launched an inquiry, headed by barrister Sir Herbert Edmund Davies, to determine the cause of the landslide and decide if anyone should be held responsible. Though, for most of the 76-day tribunal, the National Coal Board (NCB) maintained that only the weather was to blame, NCB chairman Lord Robens finally conceded that his organization was at fault.

The tribunal’s report, published on August 3, 1967, called the disaster “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.” The National Coal Board paid £500—a little over $640 then, or $10,000 now—to each victim’s family, but no individual employee from the Coal Board was ever fired, demoted, or even fined.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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A Prehistoric Great White Shark Nursery Has Been Discovered in Chile

Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
solarseven/iStock via Getty Images

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) may be one of the most formidable and frightening apex predators on the planet today, but life for them isn’t as easy as horror movies would suggest. Due to a slow growth rate and the fact that they produce few offspring, the species is listed as vulnerable to extinction.

There is a way these sharks ensure survival, and that is by creating nurseries—a designated place where great white shark babies (called pups) are protected from other predators. Now, researchers at the University of Vienna and colleagues have discovered these nurseries occurred in prehistoric times.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, Jamie A. Villafaña from the university’s Institute of Palaeontology describes a fossilized nursery found in Coquimbo, Chile. Researchers were examining a collection of fossilized great white shark teeth between 5 and 2 million years old along the Pacific coast of Chile and Peru when they noticed a disproportionate number of young shark teeth in Coquimbo. There was also a total lack of sexually mature animals' teeth, which suggests the site was used primarily by pups and juveniles as a nursery.

Though modern great whites are known to guard their young in designated areas, the researchers say this is the first example of a paleo-nursery. Because the climate was much warmer when the paleo-nursery was in use, the researchers think these protective environments can deepen our understanding of how great white sharks can survive global warming trends.