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.