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Mining disaster far deadlier than thought?

Click here to see the Dec. 7, 1907 edition of The Charleston Gazette

The morning after an explosion ripped through the Monongah No. 6 and No. 8 mines, the Fairmont Times headline read, "All hope is gone; 425 are dead."

A day after that, The New York Times said it might be even worse. "Loss in mines may reach 564," the paper of record's headline reported.

But to this day, the history books report it differently. For nearly a century, the official Monongah death toll has been listed as 362.

Now, as the 100th anniversary of the disaster approaches, a new book concludes that the long-accepted figure undercounts the dead by perhaps a third.

More than 500 men and boys likely perished in the nation's worst industrial accident, longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer explains in his comprehensive examination of the disaster.

"The number of victims at Monongah will never be known with certainty," McAteer writes. "Clearly it is above 400, more likely above 550. The official number, 362, without question undercounts the dead."

McAteer details how mine operators never kept an accurate count of the workers underground at any particular time, and then set out to deliberately downplay the real number of deaths at Monongah.

He pieces together both old and newly unearthed papers to document a more accurate count of those killed.

McAteer, a Fairmont native who ran the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, has been investigating Monongah for nearly 30 years. He made a short documentary about the disaster in 1986.

His book, "Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History," is being published by the West Virginia University Press. The release is scheduled for Dec. 6 — the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

On the anniversary, state and local officials have scheduled a program from 10 a.m. to noon in the Monongah town square. The program will include the reading of the victims' names and the presentation of a special bell by guests from San Giovanni, an Italian town from which many Monongah residents and disaster victims had emigrated.

Following the program, a Mass will be celebrated at Holy Spirit Catholic Church.

In his book, McAteer points out that he is not the first to question the official death figure from Monongah.

After coming to the community as parish priest in 1952, Father Everett Briggs became interested in the victims as he listened to residents tell stories about the disaster.

"Through the years, he has collected information on the accident and especially its victims," McAteer wrote. "By working through local interviews and graveyard records, he has asserted that over 500 men died that day."

And, McAteer found, questions about the accurate number of deaths were raised almost from the start, while mine rescue operations at Monongah were still underway.

Gathering an accurate count would have been difficult, given working conditions and practices at the mine, McAteer explained.

Like most mines at the time, there was no adequate system for keeping track of the number of workers underground.

Miners used duplicate brass tags that, in theory, registered every worker present in the mine. As miners went underground, they placed one tag on a board with numbered hooks. That told managers who was in the mine. The other tag was put in the miner's pocket, to identify the miner in case of an accident.

But, McAteer reports, "The numbering system did not include men and boys who were brought in as subcontractors for the miners who were being paid per ton of coal loaded out." Many of these workers were "off the books," he says.

To make matters worse, the Monongah explosion blew everything in its path to bits, including both boards containing tags for nearly all of the miners inside the No. 6 and No. 8 mines, McAteer says.

And after initial reports put the number of possible dead at between 400 and 500, mine officials "began an effort to downplay the number of miners killed," McAteer found. McAteer describes the way that one mine official, fireboss Lester Trader, "was used to publicly assert a lower number to the media in return for a promotion."

But in his investigation, McAteer compared various lists and public records to come up with a more comprehensive count.

"The official number of 362 was clearly a count of located bodies, identified victims that were matched with names from a company survey," McAteer writes. "Thirteen others were recorded in newspaper accounts or as visitors, railroad men, and so on, making the total 375."

At least another 58 bodies of boys and men "working off the books," also were found, McAteer discovered, bringing the total to 433.

"Using a conservative estimate, the approximately 50 bodies that were never recovered results in a total of 488," he writes.

And two early estimates from mine officials put the number in excess of 500, and as high as 550 or 578.

Independent surveys by the parish priests of Italian and Austro-Hungarian members of the two immigrant churches in Monongah came up with a count of 410.

"When added to the 'Americans,' both black (11) and white (74), and the Turks (5), the total comes to 500," McAteer concludes. "So it is reasonable to conclude that the disaster at the Monongah mines certainly claimed in excess of 500 lives and probably more than 550 men."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

 

Book orders

The WVU Press is taking advance orders for McAteer's book through www.wvupress.com, or by calling 293-8400. The price for pre-ordered books is $25 plus tax and shipping. After Jan. 31, the price will be $30.

The release is scheduled for Dec. 6 — the 100th

anniversary of the disaster.

On the anniversary, state and local officials have scheduled a program from 10 a.m. to noon in the Monongah town square. The program will include the reading of the victims' names.

Following the program, a Mass will be celebrated at Holy Spirit Catholic Church.


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