Huw Edwards traces the story of Aberfan's decades-long battle for justice, looking at whether the incident was a terrible accident or a preventable man-made disaster.
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This is BBC One. We are now returning to the newsroom.
Disaster struck suddenly this morning
at the small Welsh coal-mining village of Aberfan
near Merthyr Tydfil.
On the morning of the 21st October, 1966, in the village of Aberfan
in South Wales, 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives.
At 20 minutes past nine this morning,
a huge coal tip bearing some 40-odd thousand tonnes of coal moved.
Thousands upon thousands of tonnes of piled up coal waste,
soaked by rain, suddenly slumped down in an oozing mass
on the Pantglas Junior School and a row of nearby houses.
Several classrooms were completely buried
under a mound of rubble 50-60 feet high.
The mix of rage and grief brought demands for urgent answers.
How did it happen?
And who was to blame?
Within a few weeks,
as people struggled to take in the enormity of what had happened,
an official inquiry was established and started to take evidence.
But would the truth emerge?
Would the families of Aberfan get the answers they sought?
Would this shattered community get the justice it deserved?
The justice we did not have,
and, for everything that came to us after that was good,
we had to fight for.
What would a child make of it?
What happened here at Aberfan was one of the biggest disasters
in the modern history of Wales and, indeed, the United Kingdom.
For 76 days, the tribunal questioned and challenged
and investigated and, within months, had presented its conclusions.
It was just the start of a long, angry, bitter campaign,
a fight for justice.
Aberfan, a small village in the valleys of South Wales,
is surrounded by green hills today,
as it was in the days before coal-mining came
and changed everything in the 19th century.
50 years ago, the landscape was very different.
There were dark mountains of coal waste,
in seven enormous tips that towered over the village.
On 21st of October, 1966, the history of Aberfan changed forever
when one of those tips came crashing down.
In five decades of remembrance, the focus, quite rightly,
has been on the immense loss that was suffered on that day,
and the lasting pain that it caused.
But 50 years on, the people of Aberfan are surely entitled
to revisit some of the toughest questions of all.
Could this disaster have been prevented?
Who was principally to blame?
And why did it take so long to get at the truth,
and to get a sense of justice?
The disaster brought an army of rescuers and reporters
to the village, but one man was notably absent.
Lord Robens, Alf Robens,
the chairman of the National Coal Board, the NCB.
That was the state-owned body which ran the coal industry.
He was nowhere to be seen.
Within minutes of the disaster,
there were hundreds of local miners and workers on the scene.
The tips above Aberfan contained waste
from the local colliery Merthyr Vale,
one of over 1,000 mines taken into public ownership
when the National Coal Board had been created in 1947.
The NCB's boss, Lord Robens, was due to be installed
as Chancellor of the University of Surrey on the day of the disaster.
And he would not be diverted from travelling to Guildford
to perform his duties in cap and gown.
I am not an engineer.
I am not a person who could take charge of rescue operations,
so I dispatched the best man in my industry,
that is the chief mining engineer,
to ensure that everything possible is done in a physical way
to rescue people.
In fact, it would take Lord Robens the best part of two days
to make the journey to Aberfan to see the chaos with his own eyes.
When he arrived in Aberfan, and the rescue operation was turning into
an operation to recover bodies, Lord Robens was busy giving interviews
to the press and media, and he was asked a very direct question.
Was it possible to know that the tip had been dangerous
before the disaster? His answer was very clear.
He said it was impossible to know
that there was a spring in the heart of this tip,
"turning the mountain to slush" - his words.
And that was the broad answer that he gave to lots of journalists.
What has happened here is that there has been an underground spring,
which has now been uncovered.
We have our normal procedures for ensuring that pits are safe,
but I'm bound to say that we have no procedure that tells us
that there is a spring deep down under a mountain,
because that spring must've been covered up 30, 40, or 50 years ago
when the first debris was put upon it.
That claim, that no-one knew about the springs on the mountain,
was met with utter disbelief among many local people.
Mr Owens, yesterday, it was announced that these springs
-had just been discovered. Is this news to you?
No, there have always been springs.
I've jumped over them all my life up... Well, I'm 56 years old now.
There were lots of claims that the disaster at Aberfan
was unforeseeable - there had been no warning signs.
Well, let's be polite and say that that wasn't true.
Let's take one example, one of several.
In January of 1965, two mothers of children at Pantglas School
presented a petition to the headmistress. Why?
Well, they were fed up with the flooding.
This area that we see today was flooded frequently.
They'd bring the children down this road, across the way,
and up to the school,
which was just beyond where the community centre is today.
The drains were frequently blocked by the slurry that kept coming
down the mountainside from that Number 7 Tip.
Those mothers knew there was a problem.
It wasn't just inconvenient, it was dangerous.
Tragically, no-one listened to them.
Quite a lot of people were complaining to the headmistress
and there was one lady in Aberfan Road,
who was a teacher for years, and she was always telling
the council that something was going to happen one day, but...
her warnings were ignored.
What we were concerned with was the water coming down from the tip
that was flooding the main road.
It was that which prompted us to protest about it.
So what happened to that petition?
Well, within days, it was presented by the headmistress
to the local authority, and then nothing happened.
Both mothers would go on to lose a child in the disaster.
The headmistress lost her life in the disaster.
And, in many ways, the image of the three women
is a powerful symbol of the missed opportunities at Aberfan.
There was another.
In January of 1964, local councillor Gwyneth Williams had warned
that, if the tip moved, the entire school would be threatened.
Another warning ignored.
She brought it up at every meeting she went to, as any other business.
But she would bring it up.
And there was very little notice taken of it,
of her complaint.
A few days after the disaster,
there was growing public unease about these disregarded warnings.
But the government of the day did take some prompt action.
The weekend after the disaster, the Labour government
under Harold Wilson announced an official inquiry.
Now, the choice of chairman
would be crucial to the credibility of the inquiry.
There were people here already wondering
whether the full truth would come out.
The choice of chairman was a very interesting one.
A senior judge, a Welsh man,
and someone who knew this area very well.
Well, I should hate to think that anybody would connect me
with any whitewashing exercise.
I should decline to have anything to do with an inquiry
which was motivated by considerations of whitewashing.
You have to visit this school in Mountain Ash,
which is just across the mountain from Aberfan,
to get a real sense of the presence and the strength of character
of this man - Edmund Davies.
This is the bronze bust that he unveiled
while he was working on the inquiry.
Yes, he was one of the most famous judges of the time.
He handed down those tough sentences to the Great Train Robbers.
But he was also a son of the valleys.
He knew these mining communities intimately.
And, for all of those reasons,
he was the perfect choice to chair the tribunal.
Edmund Davies was only too aware of the intense emotions at Aberfan.
There had been an eruption of anger at the Coroner's Court
before the inquiry had started, with shouts of "murderers",
and a demand from one father that the words,
"Buried alive by the National Coal Board"
be written on his child's death certificate.
All the parents were traumatised,
but at least we knew something was going on to find out
what caused the disaster, and that's all we were concerned about -
that they would find out the cause.
The families were concerned that it was going to be
a fight to get the whole truth.
A fight against the National Coal Board,
one of the biggest employers in South Wales,
which also did business with many Welsh lawyers.
So the families of Aberfan looked beyond Wales
for a barrister with no links to the National Coal Board.
Desmond Ackner, at that time, was one of the leading,
if not THE leading, common law silk in the country,
and he had a particular reputation
as an extremely able and fearless cross-examiner.
Ackner has said that he regarded his whole task as an attempt
to push the blame up,
while the National Coal Board was attempting to push it down.
He was quite clear that
the strategy of the Coal Board was to blame - the guys who were
actually tipping the slurry on top of Tip Number 7.
Ackner wanted to do, of course, the exact reverse,
and to ensure that blame lay no lower than the middle management,
and, ideally, that it should be pushed up as high as possible.
The tribunal employed Tasker Watkins QC to be its counsel.
He would be the one calling and questioning witnesses.
The inquiry's task was daunting in scale, and fraught with difficulty.
The main suspect was the Coal Board.
Many of those giving evidence were tip and colliery workers
who lived locally.
The inquiry took evidence, not in Aberfan,
but here in Merthyr Tydfil, at the technical college.
The building's changed a bit today.
And it was a remarkable achievement, because the inquiry got underway
just over a month after the disaster happened.
And, in those early stages, the media scrutiny was intense,
and no wonder, because the name of Aberfan
was resonating throughout the world.
There were four points which the inquiry would be looking into.
First of all, what happened at Aberfan?
Why did it happen? Need it have happened?
Was it a calamity
which no reasonable foresight could have presented,
or was it caused by blameworthy conduct
on the part of some person or organisation?
Over five months, the tribunal would hear 2½ million words of evidence.
There were no cameras allowed inside to record what went on,
so, for the first time in half a century,
the words of key witnesses have been brought to life.
On the opening day,
the tribunal heard a terrible catalogue of failure.
The natural springs on the mountain were to be seen clearly on maps,
and the many disregarded warnings were listed.
It seemed to be an open-and-shut case.
But when the counsel for the Coal Board got to his feet, Philip Wien,
it soon became apparent that this wasn't going to be straightforward.
May it please Your Lordship,
the National Coal Board is gravely anxious,
and certainly as anxious as anyone,
to establish beyond question the cause of the disaster,
and to learn the lessons that can be learned
from what happened at Aberfan.
The board's view is that the disaster was due
to a coincidence of a set of geological factors,
each of which in itself is not exceptional, but which
collectively created a particular critical geological environment.
The prime cause of the disaster is therefore geological.
At the very beginning, the Coal Board's case repeated the claim made
by Lord Robens, that the disaster could not have been foreseen.
But their case then changed.
Their new argument was that
the special geology of Aberfan had been to blame.
There was a growing unease that the National Coal Board
was doing its best to hide the truth.
The early days of the inquiry were taken up hearing evidence
from eyewitnesses, describing what had happened on the day itself.
But then they moved on to question some of those who had been working
on Tip Number 7 in the years before the disaster.
And the most senior of them was the charge hand, Leslie Davies,
and he was questioned by the counsel to the inquiry, Tasker Watkins,
who wanted to know how much of a focus there'd been on tip safety.
Has anybody in the last nine years, Mr Davies,
ever asked you for your views about the safety of Tip Number 7?
Has anybody ever asked you to make a report
on the safety of Tip Number 7?
Can you remember if the tip went over streams or springs?
Did you actually notice a spring a spring upon the land over
-which the tip spread?
-Was that where the children had a pond?
Yes, sir. They had a pond there.
And did small children bathe and paddle in the pond?
Had anybody ever warned you that it was dangerous to tip over a spring?
Nobody ever warned me, sir. My own experience, I knew
it was dangerous to tip over any water. That's common sense, sir.
Then I must ask you why you went on tipping over streams and a spring?
That had nothing at all to do with me, sir. I just take orders.
I'm just a working charge hand, I'm not an official at the colliery.
On Merthyr mountain today, there is very little evidence
of what was here 50 years ago, apart from this kind of landscaping
that took place when they cleared the tips.
Half a century ago, it was dangerous to be up here.
Indeed, three years before the disaster of '66,
there was another slide above Aberfan.
It didn't quite reach the village,
but Desmond Ackner wanted to know what action had been taken them.
Despite the slip in 1963, there have been no changes in the instructions
-which you were expected to carry out?
Did anyone ever tell you you should stop tipping at Tip Number 7
after the 1963 slide?
-You continued to carry out your daily work of superintending
-and assisting with the tipping at the top of tip seven?
Filling up the hole which had emptied itself out into the valley?
-Tipping on the same face as had itself failed?
In his second day of evidence,
a National Coal Board charge hand, Leslie Davies,
said that he and other workmen covered up, with Tip Number 7,
streams and a mountain spring.
In the three months before the disaster,
Tip Number 7 had sunk more than at any time in his experience.
The on-the-ground people thought,
"Oh, well, it's dropped a bit.
"That means there's more space at the top to continue
"to tip colliery rubbish, and so it's a blessing in disguise."
They completely failed to see the correct signs, and then,
as part of the Coal Board cover-up at the tribunal, um,
witnesses spent time denying that the 1963 slide had even happened.
Two days later, and after some more devastating evidence
from members of the tip gang about the existence of a stream
or spring on the mountain, the chairman, Edmund Davies, intervened.
With such overwhelming evidence that the existence of water
was common knowledge among the mining community,
Philip Wien was asked a direct question.
I'm going to get this quite clear before this tribunal continues.
Is it, or is it not accepted by the National Coal Board,
that the land upon which material was tipped in the course of
forming Tip Number 7 was land which, to the eye of the beholder,
contained active watercourses, or an active watercourse?
May I say that it is not my position
for the Coal Board to concede anything before a tribunal which is
enquiring into these matters. We seek to elicit the truth.
And this tribunal, as I understand it,
does not approach matters on the basis of concessions by anybody.
There are no admissions that can be made,
and no concessions can be made.
The Coal Board's clear statement that they were not going to admit
any kind of responsibility for the disaster
infuriated many of the families.
We will adjourn now.
The Christmas break brought one chapter to an end
and, in the New Year, the Coal Board's middle and senior management
would be cross examined, but in that winter of 1966,
the board managed to create MORE tension with the local community.
So what happened to all those people who'd lost their homes?
Well, some of them were settled in this field just below me here.
The National Coal Board installed 37 caravans down there. And guess what?
Within weeks, they'd presented the local authority with
a bill for the rental of those caravans.
And on top of that, they insisted that the caravans be insured
and that they be returned in the original condition.
In other words, another financial burden for the local authority,
which was already overstretched.
One local councillor said it proved that the NCB was
a hard and heartless organisation.
The decision was eventually overturned,
but once again, people were questioning
whether the Coal Board was behaving in an honourable way.
Mrs Davies, what's your first reaction
on moving into the caravans here?
It's wet, you know, the rain must be coming in and, er...
we're just finding nothing, nothing to, er, to use.
After the Christmas break, the tribunal reconvened and started
to take evidence from more senior workers at the National Coal Board,
not just the men working on the tips.
And the first of those was Vivian Thomas.
He was the mechanical engineer at Merthyr Vale colliery.
He was responsible for the coal tips
and, questioned by the Coal Board Council,
would he maintain the NCB claim that no water was visible
when the location for Tip Number 7 was chosen?
At that time, what was the water that you were aware of?
As far as I can recollect, sir, there was water coming out of
the end of Tip 2 and water coming out of the slide of Tip 4,
just lower down, where we were going to tip, opposite Number 2.
Was that water, at the time,
in the way of anything that was proposed to tip on Tip 7?
-How can you answer that question? How can you say that?
Earlier, you told us there had been no decision
as to how far the tipping of Tip Number 7 was to go.
Well, as far as I was concerned, Tip 7 could go to the boundary.
-COULD go to the boundary?
Yes, and suppose it went to the boundary, are you saying that
-it would go over none of the water of which you are speaking?
I don't think so, sir.
Thomas's evidence was vital to the NCB's claim
that the disaster had been unforeseeable.
But it contradicted earlier evidence about the presence of water
where Tip Number 7 was created.
Deciding the truth of this matter was one of the biggest challenges
for the tribunal, and Thomas faced days of questioning.
The office occupied by Vivian Thomas was based here.
This is the site of the old Merthyr Vale colliery.
We're at the bottom end of the Taff Valley.
Now, there was a tram system,
which took the coal waste away from the colliery,
over the river and then high onto the mountainsides opposite,
and the tips would then tower over the valley.
In many ways, the tips themselves seemed rather distant
from the day-to-day life of the colliery itself.
Vivian Thomas had little knowledge of the workings of the tips,
and it would seem he had very little contact or guidance from local
and National Coal Board managers.
Did anyone have a discussion with you
about your responsibility for these tips?
Not as far as the tips, sir, but as far as the mechanical side,
-it was my responsibility.
-Yes, but did anyone come -
The manager? The group mechanical engineer? -
come to you and explain your duties
-in relation to the responsibilities for the tips?
Were you provided, in that office,
-with any ordnance survey map of the mountain?
Until this inquiry began, had you ever studied
-an ordnance survey map of the mountain?
Do you think it would have been any good had you had one?
I think I can read an ordnance survey map.
-It tell things to you, does it?
So that, if you HAD been provided with one, for instance, you could've
identified from that the situation of streams upon the mountain?
The evidence was conclusive -
Vivian Thomas had received no guidance from senior management
and the warnings from previous tip slides had been ignored.
One event in 1939, only a few miles from Aberfan,
proved that these slides were not isolated incidents.
At one time, these valleys of South Wales
were dotted with towering coal tips.
And the one behind me, on the outskirts of Cilfynydd,
in December, '39, slid 400 metres into the valley below.
It caused huge damage. It's still difficult to believe
that no-one was killed or injured when it happened.
180,000 tonnes of waste thundering down into the valley below.
It even changed the course of the River Taff.
Damage on a huge scale!
And the mine owners,
because the mines were privately owned then, were terrified.
So they issued new guidelines for tipping safely.
And they included those guidelines in a memo.
And that memo was called the Powell Memo.
And, when the National Coal Board came into existence in 1947,
that memo was passed on to them.
If the advice in the Powell Memo had been carried out by the Coal Board
when it was created, then Aberfan would never have happened.
The memo laid down strict rules about not tipping over water,
the dangers of tipping on steep hillsides and even gave
maximum heights for tips on land such as that found in Aberfan.
The Powell Memo now took centrestage at the Aberfan Tribunal.
A senior NCB official in the local area, David Lewis Roberts,
had responsibility for the tips at Aberfan and the neighbouring mines.
Roberts knew of the Powell Memo and the dangers of tip slides,
after seeing the damage at Cilfynydd with his own eyes.
You could see, without any difficulty, could you,
that the colliery waste had gone from the tip
a very considerable distance, right across the road,
through the canal, down into the River Taff,
where it destroyed the course of the river at that point?
Yes, sir, that's correct.
From that time onwards, Mr Roberts, you needed no instruction
in the effect of a slide from a colliery tip, did you?
Roberts had not only witnessed the Cilfynydd slide,
but he was also aware of a far more recent incident.
We're a few miles from Cilfynydd.
We're on the road that leads up to the Rhondda valleys
and we have one of the last pit wheels in South Wales.
This is Ty Mawr and this is where, on 29th of March 1965,
some 18 months before the Aberfan disaster,
that there was another incident which rang alarm bells.
A load of waste came off the coal tip, causing a lot of damage
on the railway line, on the road, on the river.
Had it happened at a different time of day,
people would've been killed and there was also the alarming prospect
that the slurry could've gone down the mine shaft.
So, the divisional chief engineer decided to react,
and he remembered that a memo had been written some years ago,
after the Cilfynydd incident, and he went in search of the Powell Memo.
So, what happened to that document?
Well, it was sent out to all the engineers in the area,
with an instruction that the senior coal board engineers should
cooperate with their colleagues, check on the safety of the tips
and then report back as soon as possible.
In Aberfan, that work fell to David Lewis Roberts
and his civil engineer colleague, Robert Exley.
The trouble is that neither man followed the instructions.
Roberts produced a very superficial report.
Exley did even less. They didn't cooperate with each other.
It was, to put it very mildly, an inadequate response.
Tasker Watkins, counsel for the tribunal,
questioned Roberts about the way he'd reacted to the Powell Memo.
Will you look at Bundle 4, please?
Where Mr Powell, the divisional chief engineer stated,
"I should be pleased, therefore,
"if you would arrange with your colleagues
"for a detailed examination of every tip."
"With your colleagues."
Why did you not carry out the terms of that letter?
In as much as Mr Exley had a copy of this letter,
I understood that he would do a separate and independent report,
as well as I would.
Why did you not get in touch with him
and say, "Here is the Powell letter.
"We have got to get together"? Why did you not?
I took it the other way round,
that he would make an independent report and Mr Powell would have
two reports - one from me and one from him.
Mr Tasker Watkins, with a civil engineer and a mechanical engineer,
unless you're going to have joint report
or have some joint discussion, how are you going to avoid
the possibility of returning two different types of report?
You follow what My Lord has said, do you not, Mr Roberts?
Two different reports might have gone into Mr Powell,
had you not got together about it.
That would be thoroughly undesirable, would it not?
I don't know.
I don't know what was at the back of Mr Powell's mind,
whether he would want it that way or not.
Mr Tasker Watkins, again, you will return to the phrase,
"If you would arrange with your colleagues."
Yes, My lord.
What arrangements had you made with your colleagues, Mr Roberts?
Then do you now agree that
you ignored one of the most important parts of that letter?
I ignored a part of the letter, yes, sir.
Roberts had written his brief report without consulting his colleague.
Exley, on the other hand, hadn't produced a report at all.
'Most people who were brought to the stand seemed to...'
think it was somebody else's fault.
Not theirs at all.
'But the judge, thank goodness, did not believe them.'
On the third day of Roberts' evidence,
it still wasn't clear why he hadn't approached his colleague,
Robert Exley, a trained civil engineer with a superior knowledge
of soil mechanics and all the technicalities involved.
Why hadn't he asked him to work with him on the tip inspection?
Once again, Edmund Davies, the tribunal chair,
was forced to intervene.
You and Mr Exley were on quite good times, were you?
-Reasonably good terms, I'd say, My Lord.
-We must not mince matters.
When you say "reasonable", why do you qualify it in that way?
We would talk together, but we'd fall out quite a lot
on various jobs that were being done.
Yes, each member of the tribunal
has had that in the back of his mind in the past two days.
There was some kind of estranged relations between you and Mr Exley?
I wouldn't like to emphasise too much on that, but...
I would say yes, My Lord.
OK, thank you.
A clash of personalities was responsible
for a completely inadequate response to the Powell Memo,
and another missed opportunity to spot the menace at Aberfan.
'I went to the tribunal,'
and it just happened to be Sharon's birthday,
the little girl that I lost in the disaster.
And what I heard there was very difficult for me to accept.
One of the engineers,
he didn't seem to realise his dreadful part in this.
And when I heard what he had to say...
..it made me feel sick.
There was this man who had caused so much damage to people in Aberfan.
It takes a man to admit when he's wrong...
..and I thought he was less of a man.
There is another revealing dimensional
to David Roberts' involvement in the story of Aberfan
and, to find out more, you need to come here,
to the public library at Dowlais on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil.
Now, this is a collection of letters handed over to the inquiry
and I have to say that reading them is a rather sobering experience.
The title of the collection says it all.
"Danger From Coal Slurry Being Tipped
"At The Rear Of The Pantglas Schools."
It's a long list of concerns from council officials sent
to the National Coal Board.
The man there responsible, as we know, was David Roberts.
He clearly didn't take much of this seriously.
He didn't forward these letters to his superiors.
So, listen to this one line from the borough engineer at Merthyr Tydfil.
"You are no doubt well aware," he says to David Roberts,
"that the tips at Merthyr Vale tower above the Pantglas Area,
"and, if they were to move, a very serious position would accrue."
Well, David Roberts' response to all of this was to say
everything was under control.
He thought that people like the borough engineers of Merthyr,
who had raised the complaint, or the elected councillors who had
raised a complaint, or pit workers,
that these people did not know what they were doing and that he did.
That attitude might have been fine if he had actually
done the inspections which he was required to do
and/or if he'd actually reported the results up the line.
But sadly, neither of those things happened.
Mr Exley, you have been giving evidence...
At the tribunal, David Roberts' colleague,
the civil engineer Robert Exley, was asked what would have happened
if he'd followed the instructions to inspect the tips
and examine them in accordance with the Powell Memo.
If you had carried out a detailed examination of Tip Number 7,
on the basis of what was stated in the memorandum,
you'd have been obliged to condemn it out of hand.
-Is that a question, sir?
-It certainly is.
I do not think that necessarily follows, sir.
Just have the memorandum before you,
and see if you can find one thing to be said in the favour of
the continued existence of this tip, if the memorandum's applied to it.
Every precaution in relation to Tip Number 7
you now know is lacking, is it not?
I do not think that anyone would've thought at that time
that there was a possibility of the tip sliding as far as it did.
If you had carried out a detailed examination, you would've been able
to have established quite simply that the precautions were lacking.
-Probably, yes, sir.
-CERTAINLY, Mr Exley.
Do yourself some justice and bear in mind the length
of your qualifications, and the extent of your professional skill.
With certainty, would you not?
Yes, I think so, with some investigation.
The clear failure of both Exley and Roberts was damning enough,
but the coal board continued to argue that disaster
could not have been foreseen.
On St David's Day, 1967,
the most senior NCB official appeared at the tribunal.
He was William Sheppard,
the director of production,
and, very soon, the defence was crumbling.
Looking back, was there anything to prevent
a reasonable person from envisaging the slide going down
that one-in-four gradient for a substantial distance?
-In London, my lord, at headquarters?
-We had not the information of Abercynon, Cilfynydd or Tip 4.
Let me be quite clear about what the question you're being asked is.
There was, surely, sufficient known about the potential of tips
on inclined surfaces to slide, was there not?
Not as far as I'm concerned, My Lord.
Sheppard denied all knowledge of the past incidents in Wales.
The lack of any notion, at a senior level,
about the dangers of tips was startling.
'I regard Mr Sheppard's evidence as'
showing that he is actually more blameworthy
than, down the line, Mr Roberts or Mr Exley, because, um,
here is the person in charge of the ship
who has not the slightest idea of what is going on,
but nevertheless, we know from other documents that Mr Sheppard
was an active part of deciding what the coal board's line would be.
While the tribunal continued its work, the families in Aberfan were
still living in the shadow of the coal tips
that had killed 144 people.
Their removal was something the community demanded,
and it was at this point in 1967
that Lord Robens returned to the village.
In the days after the disaster,
there was some talk of removing the entire tip complex.
And, then, as time went on, the talk turned to landscaping, not removing.
The reason, of course, was cost.
So, the mothers of Aberfan decided to demand a face-to-face meeting
with Lord Robens, the chairman of the National Coal Board.
And that meeting took place here at the Aberfan Hotel.
The topic to be discussed is whether or not the coal board is prepared
to completely remove the remaining seven tips here at Aberfan.
It isn't a question of logic,
of convincing people that the pit heap is safe.
People who have suffered,
as the womenfolk have suffered particularly,
just do not accept this as a fact
and, therefore, no amount of argument will convince anybody.
A petition was drawn up in the village,
and presented to the Welsh Office in Cardiff, with 1,500 signatures,
demanding the removal of all the tips at Aberfan.
It was the first stage in a prolonged battle
that would last for years.
Throughout the inquiry,
Desmond Ackner had been reminding the tribunal
of that rather odd statement made by Lord Robens at the outset
about the unknown, mystery spring under Tip Number 7.
Not a single NCB official
had been able to support or explain that theory.
In his closing speech to the Inquiry, Desmond Ackner was
brutally effective, criticising the coal board's original statement,
and Lord Robens for not coming to the tribunal to explain himself.
No explanation has been proffered by or on behalf of Lord Robens,
and his absence from the tribunal, therefore,
and in this regard, has been conspicuous.
In a dramatic and unexpected move, a matter of days before the tribunal
was to end, Lord Robens offered to come and give evidence.
So, would he now stand by his early claim that the disaster
could not have been foreseen?
When did you first learn that the causes of this disaster
were reasonably foreseeable?
Before the inquiry took place?
I would say that I knew that the disaster would have been foreseeable
at that moment in time when I was on
the mountainside and realised...
Am I not answering the question to your satisfaction?
You were on the mountainside two days after the disaster.
The day after.
-Two days after.
-What I'm asking you is this -
when did you first realise that the cause or causes of the disaster
-were reasonably foreseeable?
-I must repeat.
Only you were shaking your head,
and I felt I was not giving the right answer to your question.
When I was on the mountainside,
and I saw the work that was being done to turn that water away
from the tip and to channel it, it was clear to me that,
had there been experts about, to recognise that, on a mountainside,
where there is always a lot of water,
that this might have been a possibility.
It came to me at that moment in time that, if we had in fact got this
in operation, this could be said to have been foreseeable.
Finally, after relentless cross-examination,
the head of the coal board had been forced to admit
that the disaster had been foreseeable.
The National Coal Board's long-held public stance had now changed.
Had we realised that Lord Robens was saying something quite different,
namely that it was indeed quite possible to know,
by the use of available measures,
that this disaster was impending and preventable,
then Lord Robens would've been asked to make a statement many weeks ago.
And I venture to think that weeks, if not months,
of this inquiry would have been rendered unnecessary.
The 76 days of tribunal could've been avoided if the coal board,
on day one, had fessed up and said, "We made a mistake
"and we are very, very sorry, and it won't happen again,
"and we will pay fair compensation to all of those affected."
Then almost the whole tribunal could have been saved.
Until Lord Robens' appearance at the tribunal,
the board's lawyers had privately been refusing to agree
to any claims for compensation from the people of Aberfan.
Now that the chairman had finally admitted liability,
those lawyers quietly changed their stance
and agreed to pay the legal minimum of just £500 for every child lost.
Later, on the 70th day of the Inquiry, Desmond Ackner completed
his closing statement on behalf of the people of Aberfan
and, with his considerable power of argument,
he demanded the undivided attention of everyone present.
I merely wish to add this in conclusion.
Those who died in this disaster lost their lives,
not because of the occupational hazards
which are ever-present in these mining valleys -
there was no sudden collapse of an underground working,
no unforeseeable or unforeseen explosion.
This was a slow-growing, man-made menace,
fed by the indifference of those
who should never have permitted its existence.
That is the horror of this disaster.
There can be no more bitter reminder of the truth and wisdom
of Bernard Shaw's condemnation.
"The worst sin towards our fellows is not to hate them..."
"..it is to be indifferent to them.
"For that is the essence... of inhumanity."
Thank you, Mr Ackner.
The people of Aberfan would have to wait another four months
for the official findings of the tribunal.
On the 3rd of August, 1967,
this little square in the middle of Aberfan was a hive of activity.
It was publication day, and this is where the final tribunal report
was distributed to the villagers.
And, for nine employees and former employees
of the National Coal Board,
the conclusions of this report would be rather challenging.
This was the moment the community hoped to get justice,
that the true cause of the disaster be found,
and those responsible be called to account.
The conduct of the National Coal Board
throughout this process, was severely criticised,
and the board was found to be
entirely responsible for the disaster.
The main fault was judged to be a lack of clear guidance.
Nine individuals were also singled out for criticism,
and these included key witnesses at the tribunal -
and David Roberts.
But no-one holding a senior position at the National Coal Board
was included in that list.
The conclusions of this report are sometimes precise,
sometimes less precise.
So, for example, the National Coal Board is held to be responsible
for what happened, but no individual is directly blamed for the disaster.
Let me share some of the words with you, because they are instructive.
"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."
And you may be wondering what happened
to the nine men who are named. Well, the answer is not much.
They weren't disciplined, they weren't demoted,
and they certainly weren't sacked.
I think they should be instantly dismissed.
I think they shouldn't be allowed to work for the coal board
under any circumstances at any job.
Do you agree that it was simply bungling ineptitude...
-..or a little more than this?
-No, I think a little more than that.
As I say, I think it was absolute neglect...throughout.
And, if it wasn't for neglect,
I would have my little girl with me today.
What would a child make of it?
That, although they were condemned,
they were not punished.
The tribunal report made a range of recommendations on how to ensure
the safety of coal tips, including the need for new legislation.
And, soon, work began on the physical transformation
of the South Wales valleys, and other coal mining areas.
But what of Lord Robens, the man who led the National Coal Board?
Would he offer to resign?
And, if so, should his resignation be accepted?
Lord Robens shouldn't be left the courtesy of resigning.
I feel he should be sacked.
Surely he knew all about these tips
and what was going on with the collieries.
Other than that, he was accepting money under false pretences.
You must've had a number of offers from industry, Lord Robens?
Yes, indeed. Yes, yes, that's perfectly true.
There's no difficulty about getting another job,
and indeed getting another job at two or three times the money
that they pay me at the Coal Board, but money isn't important.
He stormed into government offices and said,
"I demand to see this report in advance."
He then did a tour of the coalfields,
and this was quite clearly in an effort to make sure that the union,
the National Union of Mineworkers, was on his side.
Robens portrayed himself, rather deftly,
as the defender of the coal industry
in an age when nuclear power was gaining popularity.
Robens received countless letters and telegrams of support from
across Britain, including the mining communities.
He went to sell British coal in the United States,
sailing on the Queen Mary.
So that meant that, for ten days, nobody could get hold of him.
And that was where Lord Robens presented not only his letter
of supposed resignation, but also the reply,
which he wanted the minister, Richard Marsh, to make.
With this kind of manoeuvring and powerful friends in the press,
Robens was a difficult man to dislodge.
The Labour government decided he could stay in the job,
which he did, for several years.
After which, his career took another rather surprising turn.
The man who chaired the National Coal Board,
the organisation responsible for 144 deaths here,
went on to lead a review into health and safety at work.
Still present above Aberfan was a dark reminder of the disaster,
and the sight of the tips caused endless anxiety.
The Government claimed the tips were in a safe condition
and, behind-the-scenes, Lord Robens had made clear that the NCB
would not be paying for the tips to be cleared.
But the villagers had other ideas,
and they held a series of meetings to plan their campaign.
There was no possibility of moving forward,
of building a new future, unless those coal tips were removed.
And so, throughout 1967 and 1968,
the Tip Removal Committee worked hard to try to get results.
But it didn't work.
And this is the truth for you -
despite the appalling experience of Aberfan,
there was very little sympathy in the heart of government for
the demands that were being made.
We weren't interested in landscaping,
we were interested in making the children feel safe again.
And as long as the tips were there, they wouldn't feel safe.
Why should they? We felt afraid.
This is the Aberfan Tip Removal Committee.
Do not forget the meeting tonight.
The Secretary of State for Wales was invited to attend,
but has declined to accept.
He has already gone on record as saying that the tips cannot
be completely removed for three reasons.
A, it would take too long, B, it would cost too much,
and C, two of the tips above the village are already on fire.
By June of 1968, the members of the Tip Removal Committee
were at the end of their tether.
So they sent a letter here to what was then the Welsh Office,
the base of the most powerful politician in Wales,
the Secretary of State,
George Thomas, who was himself a proud son of the mining valleys.
And they warned him very clearly that, if those coal tips
were not moved, they would take further action.
We feel that it's time now for militant action.
We can carry these tips manually to Cardiff, London or elsewhere
and dump them on their doorsteps.
On the 20th of July, 1968,
a very important meeting took place here
at the Welsh Office in Cardiff.
It was a kind of showdown between George Thomas,
the Welsh Secretary, and the community leaders of Aberfan
and they were backed up by a big crowd of villagers gathered outside.
They were all hopeful of a positive outcome.
But when news came through that George Thomas wouldn't budge,
the mood changed.
We'd like them to come and live in Aberfan for a month,
and hope that it would rain every day that they were there.
'Without any planning, we just went in through the door
'and up the stairs.'
And people were saying, "Oh, don't come in here, don't, don't, DON'T."
We just did it.
The villagers rushed into this building, they came up these stairs,
and they brought with them a big bag of slurry, or waste,
from the coal tips of Aberfan.
They threw some on the floor,
they threw some on a conference table.
They were demanding to see George Thomas,
but George Thomas was nowhere to be seen.
He was hiding somewhere in this building.
The protesters refused to leave and, gradually,
George Thomas realised that he wouldn't be able to avoid them.
'He was told off in English and in Welsh
'and I said, "We'll remove it ourselves'
"bit by bit and send it to all you people."
But after the showdown in this building,
George Thomas, quite possibly,
was shamed into changing his mind and he announced a U-turn.
There was jubilation in Aberfan, but what they hadn't realised was
that George had a trick up his sleeve.
In the days following the disaster, a charitable fund was established
using donations that came in from around the world.
It stood at £1.75 million, and this mountain of cash
was to prove too much of a temptation to the Labour government.
Here was the Coal Board blankly refusing to pay,
so the money had to come from somewhere else.
Well, there was only one somewhere else.
And then this kicked in to some feelings, which were clearly around
at the time, that the Disaster Fund was unmanageably vast,
it wasn't going to bring back the children,
so it was perfectly OK to use it for removing tips.
So let's be clear,
because this is still difficult to understand, even today -
the Government wanted to take a quarter of a million pounds
from the Aberfan charity fund to help pay for the tip clearance.
Later on, they reduced that to £150,000,
which was still a huge sum at that time.
The people of Aberfan complained to the Prime Minister,
and they told him that they were being forced to choose
between clearing the past and building the future.
And let's not forget, at the same time,
the Government was happy to spend millions of pounds
redeveloping old industrial sites right across Wales.
Those communities didn't have to pay
and they hadn't suffered like the people of Aberfan.
What happened next was increasing political pressure
on the charity trustees.
They're going to consider what they pay.
Of course, they will pay what they can afford,
but the scheme will depend on what they pay.
The lawyers representing the families were convinced
it simply wasn't legal to use the money to clear the tips,
but the trustees felt they had no choice.
The question is,
why did the trustees hand over £150,000 to the government
when they'd already been advised that that request was unlawful?
Because, for us today, it doesn't make any sense.
But there were several things going on.
Those trustees felt under immense pressure to make a decision.
The Charity Commission, which should have been helping them
and supporting them, was nothing but trouble.
And then, maybe more important than anything,
the trustees felt that, if they didn't hand over the money, well,
the tips might never be cleared
and, in that sense, they felt they had no choice.
We decided it was better to pay than leave them there.
We didn't have a choice.
We did not have a choice.
We had to...
..agree to it for the sake of the village.
The work to clear the tip started in 1969.
1.8 million cubic metres of waste was moved from the mountain
at a cost of £850,000 -
paid for by the government, the National Coal Board,
and with money from the Disaster Fund.
Despite the disappearance of a significant sum,
the Disaster Fund was still used on other projects.
A memorial garden was built on the Pantglas site.
There was an education fund and plans to invest in the community.
If you want visible evidence of the way Aberfan recovered gradually
after the disaster, well, this is it.
This is the community centre which opened in March of 1973,
with the big hall for conferences and concerts
and a network of other rooms for sports and social events.
But there was one piece of unfinished business -
that £150,000 missing from the charity fund,
and that was the government's fault.
Not only was it completely unjust,
it was also creating practical problems, not least for this place.
And by the end of the 1980s,
the community no longer had the funds to keep this place going.
So they had to hand over control to the local council.
Over time, the missing £150,000
became a growing source of bitterness and resentment.
Aberfan's community leaders and political representatives
continued to argue for the return of the money,
not least because funds were running out to care for the memorial garden
and the children's gravestones.
In fact, it took three decades for change to come.
In 1997, a New Labour government was elected with a very big majority.
There was a new Welsh Secretary in residence in this building
and he was determined to right the wrongs of the past and,
at the same time, some previously secret government documents
had been released in the public domain
and they shed new light on the conduct of Lord Robens,
the Charity Commission and indeed several Labour politicians
who'd had very little thought for the people of Aberfan.
For me, it wasn't only returning the money, but it was a public apology
from the most senior politician that there was at a Welsh level.
There was a public apology, and I was apologising for the actions
of one of my predecessors. I was saying, "That was wrong."
The return of the £150,000 to the Aberfan fund
was a very public statement
that this community had been badly treated.
And then, a decade later, it was the Welsh government
that repaid a sum of money approaching the real value
of what had been taken from these people back in 1968.
In 2007, it was decided that,
taking interest and inflation into account,
some £2 million should be repaid.
An injustice had been done.
Here we were now in a Welsh Assembly,
the people of Wales who had elected us, they would expect us to
look seriously at how to remedy that historic injustice.
So that this sort of stain on what had happened in the history
of Wales, really, could be put to one side
and a clear start could be made
in restoring the functions of the charities.
So the charity could now pursue its original aims,
with no concerns about the condition of the garden or the gravestones.
When the money was returned properly, it felt to us...
..that justice had been served.
But it did take a long time.
And if we hadn't...
pressed for it...
..I don't think we would have had it.
Decades of campaigning were at an end
and the victims of Aberfan - children and adults alike -
had finally been treated with the respect they deserved.
The garden of remembrance here on the site of the old Pantglas School
is a haven of tranquillity today -
a place to reflect on the terrible events of 50 years ago.
But also to reflect on the support given by
so many people to the local community.
And I'm sitting on a bench dedicated to the memory of one of them -
Desmond Ackner, the barrister -
the man considered by many local families to be their great defender.
And this garden is a powerful symbol to the entire world of a community
shattered in terrible circumstances, which slowly, bravely rebuilt itself,
often against the odds,
but never give up on the fight for truth and for justice.
And that, on this 50th anniversary, is the lasting message of Aberfan.
Fifty years ago, a coal tip crashed down on a village in south Wales, killing 144 people including 116 children. Now Huw Edwards traces the story of Aberfan's decades-long battle for justice.
The Aberfan disaster shocked the world. Immediately, people were demanding to know how and why it had happened. Was it a terrible accident or a preventable man-made tragedy? Within weeks, a tribunal of inquiry began hearing evidence.
A cast of actors brings the tribunal to life, the script drawn from the actual evidence presented at the inquiry. Huw Edwards looks back at the testimony given. Should warnings have been heeded? Who was to blame?
The publicly owned National Coal Board and the government managed to add insult to injury as they refused the demands of local people to remove the tips from above the village. Finally they gave in, but not without perpetrating another injustice on Aberfan that took decades to remedy.