West Virginia Book Festival

Bonnie Stewart’s Farmington book, redux

Among the many authors coming to this month’s West Virginia Book Festival is Bonnie Stewart, author of a forthcoming book about the 78 men killed in 1968 in the Farmington mine disaster.

Vicki Smith of The Associated Press wrote about Stewart and the book earlier this year. In case you missed it, her story is reprinted below. (At least one detail is outdated; Stewart isn’t a WVU journalism professor anymore.) The book comes out next month, published by WVU Press.

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The author of a new book about a 1968 explosion that killed 78 West Virginia coal miners contends the tragedy behind passage of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was both preventable and poorly investigated, stripping the victims’ families of the justice and compensation they deserved.

West Virginia University journalism professor Bonnie Stewart worked for five years on the forthcoming “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster,” digging up records that revealed the victims might have been able to escape before the blast if a safety alarm on a ventilation fan had worked.

The veteran investigative reporter found a long-buried memo from a federal inspector who determined the alarm was deliberately disabled. That may have allowed explosive methane gas to build up for as long as 90 minutes before the 5:30 a.m. blast shook the mountain on Nov. 20, 1968.

The fact that the memo was hidden – to the detriment of widows who later sued mine owner Consolidation Coal Co. – was typical of an investigation that Stewart believes allowed the company to intimidate witnesses.

Consolidation Coal – now Consol Energy, based in Canonsburg, Pa. – has evolved in the decades since to become what is now widely viewed as an industry leader in safety.

“Safety is our core value. It is more than just a priority,” spokeswoman Cathy St. Clair said Wednesday. “Priorities change; values do not. We empower every employee to stop any practice he or she feels is unsafe, and we work every day to reinforce our safety values to every employee, contractor and supplier.”

“No. 9,” a 288-page hardcover, will go on sale this fall but became available for pre-ordering through WVU Press and Amazon.com earlier this week.

Stewart found the critical fan memo among dozens of old U.S. Bureau of Mines documents. The author’s supervisor had ordered that it be filed away, and for reasons Stewart couldn’t determine, it remained out of the public record until she found it 40 years later.

The federal government’s final report, issued in 1990, didn’t mention either the memo or the disabled fan.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration did not immediately comment on the investigation. But Stewart, who read countless transcripts and depositions, questions why top Consolidation managers were allowed to be in the room, creating an intimidating presence as rank-and-file miners were questioned.

“In my opinion,” she said, “the investigation was totally bogus.”

In this photo made available by Bonnie Stewart, John Toothman visits the grave of his father, John W. Toothman, who was one of 78 people killed in the Farmington mine disaster. Toothman's body and personal effects weren't recovered until four years after the explosion. AP photo

Of the 99 men in the mine, only 21 escaped. Nineteen of the 78 who died remain entombed.

Though the mine was initially sealed 10 days after the blast, it was reopened in September 1969, and Consolidation continued the recovery efforts until April 1978. Some areas had caved in and couldn’t be explored, but 59 bodies were brought out.

The mine was sealed for good later that year, but Joe Megna believes searchers had come within feet of finding his father. They’d already found some of his gear.

Emilio Megna is one of the book’s key characters: He planned to retire and open a gas station. The day the mine blew up, he was working his last shift.

His then-teenage son had tried to talk him out of reporting to work.

“He told his son no,” Stewart said. “He said he owed it to the company.”

Stewart forged friendships with some families who became central to her story, including John W. Toothman II, whose father John died in the mine, and Harrison County Circuit Court Judge James Matish, whose father Frank was killed.

“It’s going to be emotional to them to read the whole story,” she said.

Stewart read the portions about David Mainella Sr. aloud to his son David, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Mainella’s father survived an explosion at the same mine in 1954 only to perish in the 1968 blast.

Federal safety laws and fatality rates have improved since Farmington.

The annual number of deaths in U.S. coal mines has plummeted from the hundreds in the early 20th century to a record low of 18 in 2009.

In 2010, however, the explosion of Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia killed 29 men and pushed the total to 48.

Consol says improvements are attributable to technology, better engineering, more focused training and legislation that furthers a culture of safety.

“What those advances have meant can be readily seen in the fact that injuries have fallen by nearly two-thirds in the past 25 years while at the same time, coal production nationwide has more than doubled,” St. Clair said. “More than half of U.S. coal mines now operate annually without a single lost work time injury.”

Still, Stewart believes the Farmington families were denied justice.

Their lawsuits were settled for $10,000 per miner. They didn’t get retirement benefits.

The day the company stopped the recovery effort, she said, was particularly well orchestrated: Consolidation sent someone, script in hand, to knock on each family’s door while it simultaneously notified state and federal officials.

“And of course, they were already dumping rocks down the hole to close it,” Stewart said.

Although the modern coal industry is safer, Stewart says much still hasn’t changed: Too many companies still value the coal over men’s lives.

“They know exactly what causes coal mine disasters, and yet they continue to take risks for production’s sake,” she said. “These are not acts of God. They know what to do. They just don’t want to do it.”