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Monongah disaster: 100 years later

MONONGAH — A kerchief tied around her head against the cold, 79-year-old Leanna Meffe carefully negotiated the steep, icy steps down the coal-filled mountain. Voices swelled the first few notes of a song from the town square far below, and Meffe gazed toward them anxiously.

She murmured, "I wanted to hear them read the names ..."

At precisely that moment 100 years before, three Meffes lost their lives in the deadliest coal mining accident in U.S. history: the Monongah mine disaster.

For decades, the 362 men and boys the coal company admitted were killed — evidence now shows it might have been more like 500 — were forgotten by most of society.

On Thursday, a committee led by Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, organized a memorial event with all the pomp and ceremony the dead and their families were denied for so many years.

No matter that it was 14 degrees outside — no matter that she had to walk from the other end of the ice-slickened town — Leanna Meffe was not going to miss that ceremony.

"My dad was supposed to be in the mine that day," she explained, digging an age-yellowed photograph out of her bag. In the photo, a dark-haired man stands stiffly formal, his pant leg pulled up to reveal the leg he lost in another mine accident.

"But it was the feast of St. Nicholas, and he didn't go," she said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."

Disappeared, or dead?

In the square, Palma Pallante listened as children read the hundreds of names of the dead: Colasessano, Oliverio, Manzo, Vendetta.

Most of the dead were immigrants who came to America seeking a better life for their families. About half were Italian. They wound up living in poverty, doing dangerous work for rich men, and when their unsafe mine exploded, they died.

Back in the old country, nobody knew that, said Pallante, a native of Roccamandolfi, in the Italian region of Molise.

"They left our country and, one day, they didn't write back," Pallante said. "Their families never knew — they just thought, 'This person won't write. This person disappeared,' never knowing they had passed."

Pallante became president of one of the several international clubs for people from Molise. She, like others in the three busloads of Italian-Canadians who attended Thursday's ceremony, never knew about the mine disaster that claimed so many of her countrymen until she heard about it at a club conference a few years ago.

When they did find out, the people of Molise had a bell crafted at the 700-year-old parish foundry in the village of Agnone.

It wasn't just a simple tribute, like a plaque or a statue. In Molise, Pallante said, the bell has a deeper meaning.

"The bell is our symbol," Pallante explained. "The bell doesn't just ring for church — it's for everything. If somebody died, you know because they ring the bell."

After Monongah, nobody ever notified them that their loved ones had died. They never rang the bell for them.

So they made a special bell. They brought it to America, where it finally rang for the Monongah miners, as West Virginians and Italians stood silently side by side in the cold square, both hearing a list of names that sound like home.

'We know from Sago, this could happen again'

As the sun finally rose over the steep mountain, snow lay untouched over the graves of the Monongah miners.

Little kids shouted and sledded down the other side of the cemetery hill. In a few hours, the throng of people from the square would crowd onto this one-lane country road to pay their respects.

First, though, they would attend a Mass for the dead.

One hundred years ago, when corpses and body parts were being pulled from the wreckage of the mine, nobody stopped for a church service. Women were hustled through the bodies, allowed to hastily identify their dead husbands and sons, and then the bodies were immediately buried — without the burial Mass the mourners, many of them Catholics, would have wanted. Some men are still entombed in the mine.

Thursday's Mass was solemn and elaborate, as if to make up for the shortfall of 100 years earlier. Knights of Columbus honor guards in scarlet capes and feathered plumes preceded five priests into Monongah's Holy Spirit Catholic Church, where white-robed altar boys and girls bore lighted candles and smoldering incense.

Bishop Michael Bransfield, clothed in golden vestments, read the gospel of John: "I am the resurrection and the life ..."

He addressed Gov. Joe Manchin, who was in the congregation, thanking him for working for coal mine safety.

"We know from Sago, this could happen again," Bransfield said, referring to the mine explosion in nearby Upshur County that killed 12 men less than two years ago.

"No matter how much technology has advanced, no matter how smart we think we are ... This could happen again tomorrow."

When it came time for the prayer of the faithful, the speaker prayed for the safety of the modern-day coal miner.

"Lord," the entire congregation responded in unison. "Hear our prayer."

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.


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