From the Western Mail, 21 October 1998, p. 3. 
  ‘Aberfan and Titanic twin tragedies’

LETHAL CONSEQUENCE: Rescue workers at the scene of the Aberfan disaster

THE people of Aberfan have welcomed a new study which draws parallels between the sinking of the Titanic and the tip slide in their village 32 years ago today.

Two academics who have begun a year-long project looking into who was to blame for Aberfan have also investigated the Titanic tragedy and concluded that both were disasters waiting to happen.

They also argue that those who died on both the ship and in the mining village were victims of obstructive officialdom, and that government bodies tried to avoid criticism of themselves in the aftermath.

Coincidentally, the views of Professor Iain McLean and Martin Johnes have emerged in the same week that the film has been released on video, and on the 32nd anniversary of the catastrophe which killed 116 children and 28 adults in Aberfan.

The academics’ work will eventually lead to a book looking at several major British disasters this century.

Titanic became the first movie to take more than 1bn at the box office, and is expected to sail past the record of 4.5 million videos sold by Christmas.

While its love story between Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet is at the heart of the film, much of its success is also due to the tragedy’s examination of the class demarcation which, so legend has it, led to a higher proportion of poorer passengers dying.

But Prof McLean and Mr Johnes say the idea that the British class structure caused many of the 1,490 deaths is too simplistic.

They also argue that when government bodies have to defend themselves after disasters, they try to deflect criticism.

At Aberfan, the National Coal Board attempted to say it was caused by a geological fault, while after the Titanic went down the powerful shipping industry lobby got to work to shuffle off the blame to avoid tighter regulations.

The work of Prof McLean, of Nuffield College, Oxford, and Cardiff-based Mr Johnes has caused no problems for Enos Sims, a Merthyr councillor representing Aberfan.

Mr Sims, who was involved in the tragedy, said nobody would object to the research if it might help prevent a further tragedy.

Prof McLean and Mr Johnes cite as evidence the details of those who lost their lives when the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912, and the 711 who survived.

The academics have released their own paper, Regulation Run Mad – the Board of Trade and the Loss of the Titanic, based on research financed by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Prof McLean said that in fact the cry of “women and children first” was heeded. “In James Cameron’s recent Hollywood epic several scenes depict the third class exit gates being locked by members of the ship’s crew to prevent steerage passengers escaping,” he said.

In fact only one witness afterwards spoke of a gate below decks being locked to stop third class passengers from escaping. Another contradicted him.

Both said the steerage passengers were able to mingle with first and second class passengers.

Many of the officers and crew honourably went down with their ship, whose demise is attributed by the academics to blunders in the regulations for passenger shipping.

These mistakes were as obvious and avoidable as those that allowed uncontrolled tipping on the hillside above the village of Aberfan.

“So are the movies right? Were the dead of the Titanic killed by the British class structure?” asks Prof McLean.

“That view is not wrong. But it is seriously oversimplified.

“Our paper shows that like the children of Aberfan in 1966 the passengers died of a lethal combination of bureaucratic lethargy and producer-group obstruction.

“Class worked its effects in indirect ways. Where it was cross-cut by honour codes like ‘women and children first’, ‘officers stay at their posts’ the honour code was more powerful than class.”

The authors are highly critical of the fact that Merchant Navy safety rules were 20 years out of date in 1912. They found similar failings before and after Aberfan.

“The deepest failures identified in the Mersey Report (on the sinking of the Titanic) are, as so often in disaster inquiries, failures of imagination,” said Prof McLean.

“Ship designers and operators had never conceived of such a thing happening. The Titanic was believed to be unsinkable.”

The pair also argue that in future inquiries should be conducted without Government interference and that safety, rather than politics, should decide whether recommendations are followed.

Nearby vessel wrongly blamed

AFTER the Titanic went down on a flat calm sea the blame was put on the captain and crew of a vessel called the Californian which was in the area.

Only in 1992, after the wreck

of the Titanic had been located, was the smear officially lifted in a Department of Transport report.

Only 37.92 per cent of the passengers and 32.3 per cent of the crew survived.

Those classes of passengers with the best chance of survival were women and children in first and second class.

The chances of third class male passengers surviving turned out to be twice as great as those of the second class males.

(c)Western Mail & Echo Ltd. 1998


An article by Iain McLean and Martin Johnes entitled ' 'Regulation run mad': The Board of Trade and the loss of the Titanic' will be published in the journal Public Administration in 2000. Its abstract reads:

Disasters often involve regulatory failure. Somebody was responsible for safety and failed to ensure it, through negligence or lack of imagination, or both. The loss of the Titanic the UK's best-known and deadliest peacetime disaster. This article revisits the causes of, and inquiry into, the sinking. It illustrates how the disaster was an early example of the kind of injustice and regulatory failure that has often been central in more recent catast rophes. A regulatory body had, in effect, to inquire into its own shortcomings; therefore too little blame was laid in high places, and too much in low places. The Titanic report scapegoated the captain of another vessel, although the question of his blameworthiness was not read into the inquiry's instructions until after it had heard him. The shipping industry blocked any serious discussion of the disaster in Parliament.

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