Coal Tattoo

44 years ago: The Farmington Mine Disaster

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Forty-four years ago today, 78 miners were killed in an explosion at Consolidation Coal Co.’s No. 9 Mine in Farmington, W.Va Here’s how the United States Mine Rescue Association describes the disaster:

At approximately 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 20, 1968, an explosion occurred in the Consol No.9 Mine, Mountaineer Coal Company, Division of Consolidation Coal Company, Farmington, Marion County, West Virginia. There were 99 miners in the mine when the explosion occurred, 78 of whom died as a result of the explosion. The other 21 miners survived the explosion and escaped to the surface; seven miners working in A Face Section, four miners working near the slope bottom, and two miners working near the Athas Shaft (areas not affected by the explosion) escaped unassisted to the surface. Eight miners working near the newly constructed Mahan Shaft when the explosion occurred were rescued via the shaft by a mobile crane equipped with a steel cable and a bucket large enough to accommodate three miners. All of the eight miners were on the surface by 10:40 a.m. of the same day.

The forces of the explosion extended throughout the west side of the mine inby Plum Run overcast which included nine active working sections. Generally, the ventilating controls, such as stoppings, overcasts, and regulators inby the Plum Run overcast, were damaged or completely destroyed. The Nos. 3 and 4 fans (Mods Run and Llewellyn) ventilating the west side of the mine, the hoisting equipment in and above the Llewellyn Shaft, and part of the combination lamp house, bathhouse, and supply house located near the Llewellyn Shaft on the surface were also destroyed.

Mine fires along with several additional major and minor underground explosions interfered with and eventually prevented rescue and recovery efforts. The mine was sealed at its surface openings on November 30, 1968. In September 1969, the mine was reopened and operations to recover the remains of the 78 miners were begun and continued until April 1978. Damage to the mine in the explosion area was extensive, requiring loading of rock falls, replacement of ventilation and transportation facilities, and in some cases new mine entries to bypass extensively caved areas. Investigative activities were continued, in cooperation with the Company, State, and United Mine Workers of America (UMW A) organizations, as mine areas were recovered. Between 1969 and 1978, the bodies of 59 victims were recovered and brought to the surface.

Recovery operations ceased and all entrances to the mine were permanently sealed in November 1978, leaving 19 victims buried in the mine and leaving some areas of the mine unexplored.

Farmington and its aftermath led to the passage by Congress of the 1969 federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act. Read more about Farmington here, here, here and here. And if you haven’t yet, check out my friend Bonnie Stewart’s great book, No. 9.

In his doctoral dissertation, “Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coalfields,” the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden recalled the statements by company and government officials after the deaths at Farmington:

— West Virginia Gov. Hulett C. Smith: “We must recognize that this is a hazardous business, and what has occurred here is one of the hazards of being a miner.”

— Assistant Interior Secretary Jay Cordell Moore: “The company here has done all in its power to make this a safe mine. Unfortunately, we don’t understand why these things happen, but they do happen.”

— John Roberts, a public relations executive for Consolidation Coal: “This is something we have to live with.”

— United Mine Workers of America President Tony Boyle: “I share the grief. I’ve lost relatives in a mine explosion. But as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger of explosion.”

Here’s the late Hazel Dickens: