Leaders Failed, Children Died

By | November 21, 2019

[November 21, 2019]  It had been rainy for what seemed like forever the small village of Aberfan, a coal mining town in southeast Wales.  On October 21, 1966, an avalanche of coal waste slid down a mountainside and into the village, killing 144 people, most of them children sitting in their school classrooms.

The tragedy would become one of the United Kingdom’s worst mining disasters and was avoidable.  Coal mining creates waste, and that waste is dumped in an area called a tip.  Tip No.7 was precariously placed on a sandstone hill above the village.  Villagers were worried and had brought their concerns to the National Coal Board, which owned and operated the mine.

Concerns about the tip were rejected by the Coal Board.  “The threat was implicit, make a fuss, and the mine would close.”1  After the tragedy, the National Coal Board refused to admit that it had failed to take typical safety measures like reducing the tip’s size.  Some of the board blamed excessive rain and refused to accept any responsibility.  These men, as important leaders in the coal industry, failed Aberfan’s citizens.  Many died as a result of their malfeasance.

The failure of leadership was not just at the Coal Board’s level.  Queen Elizabeth II at first refused to visit the village to show her concern and reassurance to those struck by the calamity.  Finally, after sending her husband in her place, she came to Aberfan eight days later.  She missed an opportunity that reflected poorly upon the UK government and the Royal family.

Distrust results when leaders fail to carry out their responsibilities.  Many were slow to see this.  Tabloids in the UK carried scathing opinion articles about the failures in leadership in government and were quick to point out the duplicity of senior political leaders.  The UK’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson visited the Village early but his Labour Party, just having been elected in March of 1966.  He and his party were also disparaged in the press for their failures.

Leadership means taking on the mantle of responsibility.  It doesn’t mean a big salary, nice office, and respect.  It means getting things done and done properly.  It means rejecting any argument for not taking the blame for failures.  In this case, the failures of leadership were there for all to vividly see.  Leadership is a sacred trust.

There is a good article about the disaster, written 50 years later.  It can be accessed here (see link).  In the award-winning political drama series, The Crown, the disaster is played out in Season 3, Episode 3.  I recommend it.


  1. https://www.history.com/news/elizabeth-ii-aberfan-mine-disaster-wales
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

26 thoughts on “Leaders Failed, Children Died

  1. Linux Man

    General Satterfield, I’m new to your blog and find it refreshing. The variety of topics, quick to the point, and interesting sure makes it easier to learn some of the basics of leadership. My friends at work will be jealous of me! Since I’m new, I hope that my contributions are helpful.

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      Welcome, Linux Man. There are a variety of us here from around the world. If you like to read about leadership, then Gen. Satterfield’s blog is for you.

  2. Terri Issa

    Well, unfortunately, the upper echelons of the UK aren’t the only ones that ignored warnings of impending disasters. The Johnstown, PA flood in 1889 also reflects badly on America’s elite at the time. Concerns had been raised about the dam’s integrity and the concerns were dismissed. Over 2,000 innocent lives lost. More importantly, though, is that even though we know about these historic tragedies, it seems some people never learn from them, and that in and of itself is a classic lesson. True leaders evaluate and learn from history.

    1. Dennis Mathes

      Hi Terri, spot-on comment. We simply DON’T learn from history. Why? “It’s boring” if you are to believe my son. But really I think many leaders think they are better than those in the past and therefore they don’t have to study past events to learn from them.

  3. Dale Paul Fox

    There have been movies, books, and many articles written about Aberfan, Wales and the coal waste disaster. Since reading about it here in https://www.theleadermaker.com – thanks to Gen. Satterfield – I’ve decided to do a little more research. I’ll report back later what key points I find. This is a problem we find in humans who do not want to act, else they find themselves in the limelight. This is what they fear most.

    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      A great teaching point and one I will be using in my classes. Appreciate what you’re doing Dale.

    2. Doc Blackshear

      Great! Looking forward to hearing form you on the research. Also, I would hope you spend less time on the technical reasons for the disaster and more on the human element. This is where we can learn the most.

      1. Bryan Lee

        The fact that leaders failed and children died is so unfortunate that we all should be more aware of what did and – more importantly – what did not happen.

  4. Douglas R. Satterfield Post author

    The failure of the National Coal Board to take action is a frequent act of cowardice. It was easy to just “keep on trucking.” No action means no effort and thus less risk to them personally. Their lack of foresight is a reason for their total, abject failure in this disaster. Leaders, be aware of this common human failing.

    1. Big Al

      Gen. Satterfield, you are spot-on with this comment. I’ve seen this happen (no loss of life, however) many times in my career. Cowardice is more common that we might think.

      1. Bart Rhodes

        Sadly, I’ve seen it too with equally disastrous results. It is not easy being in a leadership position. It comes with great responsibilities and great challenges. That is, however, what makes us human.

  5. Valkerie

    Another excellent article by General Satterfield. This is why I read his blog every day. 😊

  6. Ronny Fisher

    The threat of closure of the mine (and thus putting all the men out of work) was underhanded but commonly used. Such tactics should be resisted by shinning the sunlight of the news media. However, today, the news media is completely untrustworthy and also guilty of being underhanded. Don’t trust the media. If you do, you will fall.

    1. Georgie B.

      After the disaster, the new media did an acceptable job. But that was in 1966. Today, you are correct, fake news is all around and no one knows what is really happening without undertaking a personal look.
      *** the news media cannot be trusted ***
      This message needs to be understood by all leaders!

    2. Nick Lighthouse

      Fake News! It’s everywhere. Gen. Satterfield should take another look at it. In the past, he has given examples of their “bias” (his words) before all the fake-news we’ve been hearing about started. He was ahead of the curve.

  7. Kenny Foster

    Queen Elizabeth II finally came to visit the site of the disaster. I understand, from reading about the tragedy, that she visited the village of Aberfan more than any other location during her reign. She said that it was her biggest regret. Yes, I can understand it. Leaders are where the action is. A leader cannot always lead from afar.

    1. Jerome Smith

      Yes, I do believe you are correct. QEII regretted her decision. By the way, I watched Season 3, Ep 3 of the series The Crown and Netflix did a great job on it. Worth watching again.

      1. old warrior

        Very good spot. I too watched it. Excellent and highly recommended. Shows a good side of Queen Elizabeth too.

      2. JT Patterson

        The entire series is fairly good. This episode was one of the best.

  8. Eva Easterbrook

    Such a tragic loss of life and so unnecessary and avoidable. Sham on the British government and their coal mining board cronies. I would hope that reform happened sooner rather than later.

  9. Max Foster

    I is common that the lowest level working man or woman knows what is really going on. It is our duty as leaders to listen to what they have to say, investigate their claims, and act appropriately. In this case the Coal Mining Board failed grossly in their jobs and should have been imprisoned.

    1. Tomas Clooney

      Prison would be too little punishment. All the better they walk free and be scorned wherever they went.

  10. lydia

    I had no idea but knew that mining is a dangerous occupation. Necessary! Yes, but dangerous it is nonetheless. This was a preventable disaster and the UK govt should be ashamed that it occurred in the first place.

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