Saturday, October 21, 2006

In the Shadow of the Breakers

It’s easy to know when you’re in coal country. The highways slice right through the hills, exposing the telltale black beds of anthracite or bituminous coal. Most of the village houses are company-built: narrow row houses crammed together on streets as steep as the famous ones of San Francisco. The streets that run parallel to the ridge are broader, lined with trees, and flanked by bigger houses where supervisors and other professionals live. The bosses’ grand houses are always to the west—upwind of the engine house, pump house, and the “patch” where miners lived.

Patches were built in the shadow of the breakers, gaunt windowless buildings that have the look of prisons. In the breakers, twelve-year-olds sorted coal from lower-carbon rock. Next to the breakers grew a mountain of waste—known in Wales as a tip, in my part of Pennsylvania as a slag heap or culm bank. Although slag is not as clean-burning as coal, it can catch fire; I’ve lived near places where old slag heaps have been burning for decades.

Forty years ago today, the tip above the town of Aberfan, Wales, gave way. Tons of waste made slick with water (the tip was located on a spring) roared downhill, through a small farm, and into the school where the miners’ children were studying.

One hundred sixteen children died. Twenty-eight adults, five of them teachers, also died.

The women were already there, like stone they were, clawing at the filth – it was like a black river – some had no skin left on their hands. Miners are a tough breed, we don’t show our feelings, but some of the lads broke down.

Remember the children of Aberfan. I was seven when they died; most of the dead were between seven and ten years old. They died for corporate greed and government indifference; the mine at Aberfan had been nationalized, but the British National Coal Board was still less concerned with safety than with productivity.

According to the official report,
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.

In people who bear great responsibilities, ignorance and complacency and the refusal to listen can cause terrible tragedies—and, in my opinion, make them just as culpable as if they acted with willful malice.

ETA. Another miner died in an underground accident today. That makes 42 for the year. This one's in Tremont, Schuykill County, PA.

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