By Colleen S. Good
For The Register-Herald
Wednesday is the 45th anniversary of the Farmington mine disaster, which claimed 78 lives.
The annual memorial service will be Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Farmington No. 9 Mine Memorial on Flat Run Road in Mannington.
On Nov. 20, 1968, at 5:30 a.m., an explosion occurred at Consol No. 9 Mine. Twenty-one miners were able to escape to the surface, but the remaining 78 miners were trapped.
The disaster claimed the lives of those 78 miners.
Delegate Mike Caputo, the United Mine Workers of America international vice president for District 31, said this disaster was different from the ones that came before it.
“There were many mine disasters throughout the history of our state and country, but the No. 9 mine disaster was very significant because it was the first time a tragedy such as this was seen by the world,” Caputo said. “It was a new era of media. People watched this on their televisions all across the globe and saw how horrific it was.”
The disaster brought about big changes in mine safety regulations.
“The widows of these coal miners marched on Capitol Hill and insisted that others not have to go through the tragedy they had just endured,” Caputo said.
The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969, and included provisions to increase the frequency of inspections, amplified federal enforcement powers, and strengthened mine safety and health standards.
Joe Reynolds, UMW District 31 field representative, said the ceremony will reflect how the law changed mine worker safety for the better.
“The ceremony is about the sacrifice that the miners made, and the change in mining laws that made them much safer than they were prior to the explosion,” Reynolds said.
The keynote speaker at the memorial service is Cecil Roberts, the international president for UMW.
“He is a very strong advocate for health and safety,” Caputo said. “He truly believes in the memorial because we can’t allow ourselves to go back, and sometimes if we don’t talk about the past, no one knows how to avoid going back to the past.”
Caputo said the tragedy of coal mine safety legislation is that major disasters always preceded reform.
“Every law we’ve had written to protect coal miners, we say that it’s been written in blood because someone would have to die, or a disaster would occur before someone would act,” Caputo said. “Our industry usually had to be forced to create a safer work environment for people.”
Eight years after the 1969 law, additional protections were created through the 1977 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. The law came after additional tragedies at Scotia Mine in Kentucky and the Sunshine silver mine in Idaho.
In 1977, there were 273 mining fatalities. In 2011, there were 35.
Reynolds said it was the Farmington mine disaster that helped push through the reform necessary for the decrease in fatalities.
“Those guys left a legacy to every working miner after them. It empowered the individual miners with the right to keep things safe,” Reynolds said. “The 1969 law was the first law with real teeth in it. It was probably the largest, most significant mine safety legislation of the 21st century.”
The memorial ceremony, which the UMW has been conducting for more than 20 years, is something they intend to continue for years to come, Caputo said.
“We do it in honor of those 78 men who lost their lives in that tragedy,” Caputo said. “Because they lost their lives, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was enacted, which has helped save thousands of lives since.”
The memorial service will take place at the Farmington No. 9 Mine Memorial on Flat Run Road in Mannington, just off Route 250. Caputo will act as master of ceremonies for the memorial service, which will begin at 1 p.m. and last around one hour. There will be signs directing people to the memorial, Caputo said.
Colleen S. Good is a reporter for the Times-West Virginian in Fairmont.