ONE hundred years ago today, at 10 a.m. on a Friday, an explosion ripped through two mines at Monongah, Marion County, trapping hundreds of miners underground. It remains the deadliest mining accident in U.S. history.
"Six charred and blackened bodies lying in the improvised morgue prepared near the entrance to the mine, five men in a temporary hospital hovering between life and death from awful bruises sustained and deadly gases inhaled, and 369 men imprisoned by tons of earth, rock and mine debris in the depth of the hills..." -- that's how the Gazette's report began.
J. Davitt McAteer -- who grew up a few miles from Monongah and served as U.S. mine safety chief under President Clinton, then as a special investigator after the 2006 Sago disaster -- spent 30 years researching the 1907 disaster. In his new book from WVU Press, he contends that the Monongah death toll may have been more than 500, rather than the commonly accepted 362 men and boys. A review of the book appeared in the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
At a ceremony today, a delegation from Molise, Italy, will present a bell to Monongah in memory of Italian immigrants who died in the West Virginia tragedy.
On the day of the explosion, witnesses described family members running to every exit from the mine, hoping to find survivors but finding poisonous gas instead.
"The scenes about the entries to the mines and throughout the town are even more pathetic and heart-rending than those which usually attend a mine disaster because of a larger proportion of Americans and Americanized foreigners than is usually found in a purely mining settlement," the Gazette reported at that time.
The explosion shook the earth as far as eight miles away. Several miners were blown out of the mine. People and horses were hurled to the ground, and streetcars were knocked off their rails.
The disaster left more than 1,000 widows and children without breadwinners in a time before social programs existed to support such families.
A century later, West Virginians pause to remember this tragic day in the lives of their great-grandparents, and vow that mine safety must hold top priority in this coal state.