[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.