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The Monongah Disaster: Book plumbs causes, effects, even new death toll in 1907 blast

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

At about 10:30 on the morning of Dec. 6, 1907, J.H. Leonard watched as 14 loaded coal cars rose out of the No. 6 Mine in Monongah.

Leonard’s main job was to keep the mine’s 9-by-11-foot ventilation fan lubricated. Using large oilcans with long spouts, Leonard oiled the motor and wheels hourly and tightened the fan belt frequently to keep it from slipping. Both jobs were vital to keeping fresh air flowing into the underground workings.

Because he worked outside, and relatively close, Leonard was given another key duty: To flip a switch that would derail coal cars if they broke loose. The Monongah Mine’s pulley system was one of the most advanced in the country. But it had encountered problems in the past. Cars had broken loose at the top of the tipple and crashed back into the mine, tearing down wiring, knocking down roof timbers and creating dangerous sparks.

That’s just what happened that December morning a century ago this week. Fourteen three-ton coal cars crashed back into the mine, sparking a gigantic explosion that became not just the largest U.S. mine disaster ever, but the worst industrial accident in the nation’s history.

And as the 100th anniversary approaches, one of the nation’s top mine safety experts has given us a new book that is at once a broad examination of Monongah, its causes and its legacy, and an intimate portrait of the lives that were lost.

Fairmont native J. Davitt McAteer is probably best known for running the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. But those in mining circles know he’s been working to make mines safer since his law school days, when the 1968 Farmington disaster killed 78 miners just down the road from his hometown.

McAteer has been researching Monongah for more than 30 years. He made a short documentary about the disaster in 1986, and has continued to study the issue since then. He wanted to find out more than what happened and why.

“This was an effort to not just stop the disasters, but to say ‘Who are these folks? Where did they come from? What were they like?’” McAteer said in an interview.

McAteer does plenty of that, detailing for readers a rich cast of characters like Lester Emmitt Trader. At age 22, Trader was the mine fireboss, despite the fact that he lacked the three years of mining experience required by state law to hold that post. Monongah, McAteer explains, was exempt from that certification requirement. Coal industry lobbyists had pushed for “non-gassy mines” — those that didn’t produce methane — to be exempt. State inspectors said Monongah qualified, despite the fact that it produced large amounts of methane.

Even if he had the proper training and certification, Trader couldn’t have done a very good job. Management didn’t give him time to check for dangerous conditions throughout the mine’s sprawling tunnels. So shortly after midnight on the morning of the disaster, Trader settled to continue writing a letter to his father during his lunch break. His mind was on mine safety, McAteer explains. Just a few days before, 34 miners died in an explosion in Fayette City, Pa.

“It used to make the shivers run through me to read the news accounts of mine horror, but since I have been in the mines and see into all the little details ... it has lost a great part of the horror for me, and the small, everyday accidents are more to be feared in my estimation than an extended explosion,” Trader wrote to his father.

Then, McAteer explains, Trader continued with a particularly prophetic passage:

“The greater danger in a mine is not done so much as by the flame of the explosion, except when a dust explosion happens immediately after the gas explosion, but by the concussion ... where a dust explosion takes place, there is a quick flash throughout the mine or a series of flashes,” he wrote.

Later, after completing his fireboss rounds, Trader went home, where his wife Mayme had prepared breakfast. “After breakfast, and after checking on their still-sleeping two-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, Lester Emmitt Trader went to bed.”

McAteer follows Trader later, when he helps the company to downplay the number of deaths, “in return for a promotion.”

In examining the number of deaths closely, McAteer made some news in his book, if it’s possible to truly make “news” about a 100-year-old disaster. By piecing together various government, private and church lists, McAteer estimates the true number of deaths at Monongah at more than 500, rather than the 362 commonly reported in history books and Web sites.

The disaster came as the coal industry grew in Appalachia, causing immigration patterns in the region to shift. By 1890, the traditional groups of Irish, English and Welsh immigrants were declining. Mine operators looking for manual labor began recruiting southern and eastern Europeans. This pattern was especially pronounced in Marion County, where Italian and Polish workers were brought in to work.

Against this backdrop, McAteer takes readers into the lives and times of the miners who worked and died at Monongah.

The day before the disaster was the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, a holiday widely celebrated in Europe and especially important in Italy.

“In 1907, with the Monongah mines idle that Thursday for lack of coal orders, the holiday celebrations were more widespread than usual,” McAteer writes. “In the evening, immigrant miners and their families gathered and told stories of the life of St. Nicholas, the third century Bishop of Myra and the protector of the poor against the rich.

“Traditional food and drink were shared, and cookies were passed around for all,” he writes. “Following a tradition retained when St. Nicholas became Santa Claus, children’s shoes were left by the fireplace, with the hope that a coin would be placed inside.”

Earlier that day, miner Anestis Stamboulis and several of his fellow Greek immigrants had taken advantage of the day off and mild weather. They walked into the hills above town, and picked a large basket of mushrooms for a holiday dinner.

Monongah is also very much a book about mine safety. For some readers, the volume may go into too much detail about some technical issues. We learn that the ventilation fan at Monongah was made by a company in Connellsville, Pa. It turned at 450 revolutions a minute and moved 350,000 cubic feet of air a minute. The chapter on Trader includes an extended description of the flame safety lamps that firebosses of the day used to test for methane gas.

But for many West Virginians with a keen interest in the history of our state’s mining industry, these details will be fascinating.

And McAteer provides a thorough and compelling history of the various investigations of Monongah, climaxed by his own expert criticism of a grand jury verdict that cleared the mine operator of any liability for not keeping the mine free of explosion gas and dust.

“Given the magnitude of the explosions and the ferocity created, such findings, particularly as they related to dust, are difficult to explain,” McAteer writes. “Even if the source of the initial explosion was unknown, the strength of the following explosions make the finding that dust was adequately removed or watered down particularly implausible.”

McAteer also tells about Monongah survivor Peter Urban. Urban, a Polish immigrant, was found by rescuers sitting on the body of his injured brother, Stanislaus, trying to protect him.

“Peter and Stanislaus had run to escape the explosion, but Stanislaus fell and Peter stopped to try and help him up,” McAteer writes. “He was unable to move Stanislaus, and they remained there for five and a half hours. Underground, the rescuers attempted to remove Stanislaus, but just then, he expired. Stanislaus, a father of four, would be brought out days later.”

On Oct. 9, 1926, almost 19 years later, Peter Urban was killed by a fall of coal in the same Monongah Mine.

McAteer explores the previously murky connections between the Monongah Mine management and West Virginia’s ex-senators and ex-governors and John D. Rockefeller. Then, as now, coal company financing and management was a Byzantine business.

Monongah is a major scholarly work, and another in a series of WVU Press offerings that tells previously untold stories about the people who really built West Virginia, and often suffered in doing so.

“The vast majority of us don’t have anything in common with J.P. Morgan,” McAteer said last month. “These are the people who point in fact made this country great.

“The ‘great man’ version of history is really horse manure,” McAteer said. “It’s these people who take a two-room house in Monongah and work in this murderous industry and this unfettered capitalism who stick their heads up and say ‘I’m going to make this better for my children’ — that’s history.”

McAteer finished Monongah earlier this year, after spending much of 2006 investigating the Sago Mine disaster and lending his expertise to the renewed efforts to improve mine safety that followed.

“Death still stalks the mines of America,” he writes in a postscript.

“There is a moment in the mines when the cage pulls even with the lip of the earth and the abundant sunlight explodes into a crowded elevator car that had until then been barely lit by the miner’s headlamps. The miners have just finished a shift.

“In that moment — miners tired, work finished without mistake by men or company, Mother Nature having been kind — safety in that moment is assured and all is right with the world. The companionship, the shared risk, the common problems overcome: all these things and more can make mining for coal the most enviable profession in the world.

“The bitter sweetness of that moment has tragically been made possible only by so many deaths, injuries and illnesses.”

Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History, by J. Davitt McAteer, WVU Press, 331 pages; $25 until Jan. 1, then $30, hardcover.

Available online at http://www.wvupress.com/catalog/index.php.

Contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr. by e-mail at kward@wvgazette.com or call 348-1702.


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