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A recurring nightmare: Images of disaster change little

The crowd near the mine entrance watched the hours tick by, waiting for any word of the men trapped in 2 Left.

There had been an explosion. Some miners had tried to escape, but the smoke and gas drove them back. They used a canvas curtain -- the best barricade the mine had to offer -- to try to shut out the bad air, and sat down to wait, together.

Finally, news came. Alive! A young wife happily posed for photos with her 10-day-old daughter, joyful that her husband would return to her side as soon as the rescue was complete.

Hours later, at 3:30 p.m., a company spokesman revealed the truth. “We’ve found them,” he said. “They are all dead.”

-- Siltix Mine Disaster, Mount Hope, W.Va., 1966

The canvas barricade. The “fresh air base.” The one-hour oxygen tanks.

They weren’t just the buzzwords of this year’s Sago and Aracoma coal mine disaster stories. You’ll find them in almost every faded newspaper clipping from disasters past -- sometimes almost 100 years past.

In the 1980 explosion that killed five miners at Uneeda, W.Va., you can read the company’s explanation that “confusion” resulted in a five-hour lapse between the explosion and the entry of the first rescue team.

Same thing in 1972, when an explosion killed nine miners in Blacksville, W.Va.

That time, the public cried out for better communications devices for the men underground.

In the 1946 explosion that killed 111 miners in Centralia, Ill., you can read a state mine official’s defense of the mine: “Despite what has happened, the company has made a lot of improvements in the last 18 months,” he said, when asked why an inspector’s repeated safety recommendations were ignored. “You can go to almost any mine and find similar reports.”

Politicians -- from President Nixon after a Utah explosion killed 91, to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall after the infamous Farmington, W.Va., explosion killed 78, to President Kennedy after a Harrison County explosion killed 22 -- called the deaths unacceptable, and pledged to stop them.

After the Eccles mine exploded near Beckley, the governor rushed to the scene where friends and family had gathered. It turned into a mourning ground for 181 men, and “a shocked nation demanded legislation requiring closer watch on unsafe conditions in the mine,” the Gazette wrote.

That was in 1914.

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Ninety-nine years ago, the small Marion County town of Monongah became forever linked to the worst mine disaster in U.S. history.

“It is not believed there was any suffering in that pit of horror,” the Fairmont Times wrote on Dec. 7, 1907, as 362 bodies -- about one-fifth of the town’s population -- were being hauled out of the earth.

“The body of one was found lying face downward in a pool of water, and seated astride his back was the senseless body of his brother. He was carried tenderly out, but succumbed before the hospital was reached.

“All day long frantic women grouped about the opening of the mines and their shrieks of agony were enough to move the hardest heart to pity. One woman, an Italian, whose husband, son and brother were among the doomed, tore out her hair and with her nails cut gashes in her face ...”

Miners spoke of the ankle-deep coal dust they swished through every day at Monongah. An investigation found that the combustible dust probably caused the explosion.

But it also concluded that the mine company was operating safely -- “as far as deemed practicable.” It did recommend that a federal Bureau of Mines be established to research ways to prevent mine deaths. Such a bureau was established in 1910. But there were no safety or health laws, no mandatory inspections, and certainly no penalties.

In 1915, an explosion at Layland, Fayette County, killed 115 miners. A survivor, trapped for five days without food or water, remembered “their groans and crying, and the hunger pains that drove them to scrape the bark off chestnut timbers and to gnaw the leather uppers of their boots.”

Miners spoke of the ankle-deep coal dust they swished through every day at Layland.

It would be 26 years before Congress passed another mine law, this one allowing inspectors to actually enter the mines they were to inspect.

In those 26 years, disasters -- defined as five or more fatalities -- would claim the lives of 7,545 more U.S. miners.

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“‘Homer! Homer! Oh, God! Homer!’”

“The miner came up to her and put his arm around her ... The man she called Homer said something to her in a low voice. His hand left a mark of coal dust on her upper arm. She began screaming ...

“A thin woman of middle age ran to the gate where the police stood and asked about her husband

“The policeman said he was sorry, he didn’t know.

“‘I’ve got to find out. You don’t know what it is to stand here like this

and not know ...’”

-- Gazette coverage of Siltix Mine Disaster, Mount Hope, W.Va., 1966

On the morning of July 23, 1966, the day-shift fire boss found nothing unusual in the Siltix Mine. Forty-eight men went in.

Eight went to the “2 Left” section and started loading coal. Suddenly, a blast threw another nearby miner, the beltman, 60 feet (he lived to tell the tale), and filled the section with dense smoke.

Crews in the other sections tried to escape. One crew kept running into the 2 Left smoke at every turn. They began to search for barricade materials, finally finding some canvas to nail up. They were eventually rescued.

But the rescuers couldn’t seem to reach 2 Left. The company president told sheriff’s deputies to keep all family members outside the mine gate. There they waited for hours. News of survivors brought jubilance -- later turning to silence, when a company spokesman revealed that seven of the eight 2 Left

miners had been found dead.

The lone survivor, shuttle-car operator Donald Legg, told investigators that his fellow crewmen had recently pointed out that the area was inadequately ventilated. He said his shuttle car had caught fire three days before. Investigators found that the foreman had not examined the working faces at any time on the day of the explosion.

Coal production resumed at the mine 11 days later.

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“‘Those men down there,’” Khun said, “are experienced miners. They know all the escape shafts and how to barricade themselves ...’

“Khun noted that each of the miners had a gas mask, good for 1 ½ hours, and a self-rescuer, good for 30 to 60 minutes ...”

-- Farmington miner Danny Khun, Nov. 25, 1968

A crush of media descended upon tiny Farmington, W.Va., on Nov. 20, 1968.

The explosion at Consol’s No. 9 mine would turn out to be the deadliest in nearly two decades.

It turned into a 10-day vigil. The nation watched over Thanksgiving dinner, waiting to see if the miners would be rescued before the company decided to seal the mine to quench the unfightable fire.

Meanwhile, politicians were calling for stiffer mine safety laws.

“‘I’m quite sure we will find out what caused this explosion and we will take corrective measures to prevent another one,’” said James Westfield of the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

“‘We hope to learn from this one. God forbid we should have another one.’”

It would be two years before the Finley Coal No. 15 and 16 mines would explode in Hyden, Ky., killing 38.

The company sealed the Farmington mine 10 days after the explosion. To this day, 19 bodies remain entombed in the mine.

One article described services at the tiny James Fork United Methodist Church, which had held daily prayer services during the vigil, on the day after the mine was sealed.

“Officials had placed a map of the mine on the wall. A list of where each miner had been working at the time of the explosion was attached.

“A young red-haired girl walked up to that map after the services ... and, crying, placed her hand and her cheek up against it. Then she softly cried the word ‘Daddy’ and walked away.”

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After Farmington, Congress passed the stiffest mine law yet, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

Hyden happened a year later. In 1972, the Buffalo Creek mine dam failure killed 125 in Logan County, followed quickly by an explosion at Monongalia County’s Blacksville No. 1 mine that killed nine.

U.S. Senators, including Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va., and Senate Labor Chairman Harrison A. Williams Jr., D-N.J., pledged to look into it.

“Williams said a preliminary investigation has disclosed the company was cited for 485 safety violations in the past four years,” read one newspaper article a week after Blacksville.

“Williams complained directly to Dr. Elburt F. Osburn, director o the Bureau of Mines, that the Blacksville disaster was ‘the fourth mine disaster in which a failure to take appropriate enforcement action has been uncovered.

“‘It is all too evident,’” Williams said, “‘that the Bureau of Mines has failed to take all the steps authorized under the Coal Mine Health and Safety law to see that the violations which culminated in this tragedy were eliminated.’”

Less than six months later, an explosion at the Itmann No. 3 mine in Wyoming County killed five.

One survivor, Jerry Billings, told his story to the Gazette:

The heat came in billows, engulfing him and then receding. He could feel his hands, face and ears burning each time the heat came. He could see nothing. He heard a co-worker in the distance. ‘I’m burned plumb up,’ said the man, later identified as one of the victims.

“Billings struggled with his self-rescuer, the canister designed to protect a miner from deadly carbon monoxide fumes following a fire. He broke his knife blade trying to pry the canister open. He realized he was far from an area of fresh air ...

“The pain was becoming more intense. He took off his helmet and dried to knock himself out by banging his head against the side of the tunnel. He looked at the electrical wire. His last thought before losing consciousness was of grabbing the wire to electrocute himself ...”

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In some disasters, the only recountings come from letters left by the miners.

Some are dying warnings to their fellow miners, scrawled with a finger in the coal dust or in chalk, as in the 1965 fire at the Mars No. 2 mine in Wilsonburg, Harrison County: “Couldn’t get across,” was signed with the names of four miners.

Some are words of comfort for the living: Henry Russell tried to save two coworkers, father and son, by barricading after an explosion at Everettsville, Monongalia County, in 1927. But he was an experienced miner, and he knew in his heart what their fate would be. “We do not feel any pain,” he wrote. Their bodies were later found, along with 94 others.

Last month, when 12 men died in Upshur County’s Sago mine, a letter was found with the body of section foreman Martin Toler Jr., 51: “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you ...

“Tell all I’ll see them on the other side. Jr.”

Forty-six years before, in Island Creek Coal’s No. 22 mine near Holden, Logan County, 18 men were trapped in a burning mine. Rescuers said the men’s best chance was barricading themselves. They started the grindingly slow process of advancing the fresh-air base, crowds waited for news during the round-the-clock rescue effort ...

A week later, the first of 18 bodies was discovered. The miners were lying together in groups, a Gazette article said:

“One of them, Josh Chafin Jr., had a penciled note in his hand, addressed to his wife.

‘Mabel,

‘I love you more than you will ever know. Take care of the kids and raise them to serve the Lord.’

“It was signed ‘Jr.’ -- the name he went by.

“He lay with his knees together, as if he were felled as he knelt praying

...”

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


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