By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
The families and friends of the miners who lost their lives in the 1968 Farmington mine disaster promised back then that they would never forget that tragic day.
Forty-five years later, they are still paying tribute to those fallen heroes.
A large crowd gathered under tents and umbrellas in the rain Sunday afternoon for the annual remembrance service at the Farmington No. 9 Mine Memorial on Flat Run Road in Mannington.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the mining disaster. Twenty-one miners were able to survive the explosion of Nov. 20, 1968, at the No. 9 mine of Consolidation Coal Co., but the remaining 78 workers did not make it out alive.
The monument, “located atop the unrecovered portion of No. 9 mine dedicated in perpetuity as a cemetery,” includes the names of the 78 miners who died in the tragedy. On Sunday, those victims’ names were read aloud, and wreaths were placed in front of the monument in their honor.
People gather together every year — no matter what the weather is like — to honor those heroes who have provided a safer environment for all miners today, said Mike Caputo, District 31 international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America and majority whip for the West Virginia House of Delegates. He served as the master of ceremonies for the memorial service.
“Safety wasn’t too big back in those days,” he said. “People cared a lot about mining coal and they cared a lot about making money, but they didn’t care much about their most precious resource, and that was the men who mined this coal.”
The brave widows and family members of the miners didn’t want anyone else to have to go through a tragedy like this. So they lobbied Capitol Hill, and the result was the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which created mine safety regulations to protect miners, Caputo said.
“It wasn’t the first mine disaster in West Virginia, and it wasn’t the largest in number of deaths,” he said, “but it was the one where West Virginians finally said that enough is enough and people shouldn’t have to go to work and worry about if they were going to make it home at the end of their day to their families.”
At 5:30 in the morning, when the Farmington No. 9 mine disaster occurred, most people were still in bed or were getting prepared for their upcoming day.
“Within an hour or two, everyone’s lives were turned upside down,” said UMW International President Cecil Roberts, the guest speaker for the event.
He said those men made a terrible sacrifice, but saved the lives of future miners through this great tragedy.
During the 25 years before the passage of the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, approximately 30,000 people lost their lives in the mines. But in the 25 years that followed the legislation, less than 3,000 miners died. In addition, the year after the Farmington mine disaster, black lung was recognized by the state of West Virginia and the United States government as an occupational illness, Roberts said.
“Coal miners in the state of West Virginia stood up,” he said of that time in history. “They stood up and they started marching, just like we’ve been marching for the past six months, for justice.”
Roberts was referring to Patriot Coal’s Chapter 11 Bankruptcy filing and the UMW’s battle to protect the health care benefits of retirees.
With those changes in state and federal mining laws years ago, the UMW also saw great change as a union, he said. Within a year of the tragedy in Farmington, the UMW miners were given a say in the happenings of their union and a right to vote for their officials.
“The reason I come here every year is not only to remember these 78 miners, but I think to pay tribute to these 78 miners,” Roberts said. “We don’t come just to mourn here. We come to honor these people, and we come here to celebrate their lives because their lives were important. They were important to a lot of people back in 1968, and they’re important today.”
Email Jessica Borders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.