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The Devastating Mining Disaster That Became Elizabeth II's Biggest Regret

January 4, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

The avalanche raced down a steep hill in Aberfan, Wales, sucking everything in its path into the chaos: landscape, buildings, an entire schoolhouse. When David Evans, the owner of a local pub, heard about it from a neighbor, he ran into the street. “Everything was so quiet, so quiet,” he told historian Gaynor Madgewick. “All I could see was the apex of the roofs.”

The avalanche wasn’t snow—it was coal waste that had slid down a rain-saturated mountainside. On October 21, 1966, nearly 140,000 cubic yards of black slurry cascaded down the hill above Aberfan. It destroyed everything it touched, eventually killing 144 people, most of them children sitting in their school classrooms.

The tragedy in Aberfan would become one of the United Kingdom’s worst mining disasters—and it was completely avoidable.

Despite the magnitude of the calamity, Queen Elizabeth II at first refused to visit the village, sparking criticism in the press and questions about why she wouldn’t go. Finally, after sending her husband, Prince Philip, in her place for a formal visit, she came to Aberfan eight days after the disaster to survey the damage and speak with survivors. Nearly four decades later, in 2002, the queen said that not visiting Aberfan immediately after the disaster was “her biggest regret.”

Queen Elizabeth II laying a wreath to commemorate the victims of the Aberfan disaster of 1966, years later in September of 1973.

The foundation of the disaster was laid nearly a century before, when the Merthyr Vale Colliery, a coal mine, was opened in the area. Wales had become famous for coal mining during the Industrial Revolution, and at its peak in 1920, 271,000 workers labored in the country’s coal pits. By the 1960s, coal mining was in decline, but was still a lifeline for some 8,000 miners and their families around Aberfan.

Coal mining creates waste, and the waste rock was dumped in an area called a tip. Merthyr Vale had seven tips. By 1966, the seventh tip, which was begun in 1958, was about 111 feet high and contained nearly 300,000 cubic yards of waste. It was precariously placed on sandstone above a natural spring, which lay on the steep hill above the village.

As mining progressed, the heaps of waste grew and grew. In 1963 and 1964 residents and local officials had raised concerns about the seventh tip’s location …read more

Source: HISTORY

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