FAIRMONT – Working in the mines necessitate that people be close to each other. Close in proximity, but also close in kinship.
So when gas and dust ignited and caused an explosion in Farmington No. 9 on Nov. 20, 1968, the 78 miners who died in the disaster became the deceased ancestors of the miners who followed them. This sentiment is still felt in the people who work in and for mines today.
“When you work underground, when you develop the kinship that you have with the people you work with, you become more than just members,” said Rick Altman, international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America District 31. “You can still feel the energy in that plot of land, you feel the comradery of the families and the mine workers.”
This Sunday, members of the United Mine Workers of America will once again pay tribute to their fallen brothers for the 51st anniversary of the disaster. Again this year, the ground above Farmington No. 9 will serve as the memorial site, and the leaders of UMWA will remind those in attendance why the lives lost are important to remember.
“Our primary goal is to protect each other,” Altman said. “And that’s what those 78 miners gave us the right to do.”
The aftermath of the explosion and the lives lost resulted in new safety regulations enacted for mine and coal companies, so although the deaths were not necessary, they weren’t in vain.
“We have to always remember what happened 51 years ago to these brave miners,” said Mike Caputo, a Marion County Delegate and past UMWA vice president. “It was this explosion that created the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which created many of the safety laws that we work under today.”
Caputo said that after the explosion, the family members of the deceased miners traveled to Washington to demand new regulations be enacted, and he and Altman said these regulations have saved people from more disasters like Farmington No. 9.
“Those deaths were unnecessary,” Altman said. “There weren’t laws to be enforced, but the families, the wives, the mothers, the children, they struggled and fought until we had the mine act.”
While the memorial is the main purpose of the annual ceremony, Altman said the UMWA also reminds people of this sacrifice at the service, because this disaster could happen again if regulations roll back.
“We educate people on what it has taken to get to where we are, and to protect what we have,” Altman said.
Altman will lead the ceremony’s proceedings, where he will speak and also introduce speakers, such as UMWA president Cecil Roberts and its international secretary treasurer Levi Allen. These addresses normally focus on the sacrifice of the deceased miners.
“We have to make sure that we never allow these men to have died in vain,” Caputo said. “We have to always remember the past so we don’t go back to the past, and we have to tell coal operators and the agencies that enforce the law that we demand a safe workplace.”
Following the addresses, Caputo will announce the roll call of the 78 miners, and family, friends and UMWA members will place wreaths on the memorial site. Caputo said the ceremony is emotional, especially when the children of the deceased miners present wreaths.
“It’s a very somber moment and we want to make sure we respect those miners who lost their lives and the families that suffered through that,” Caputo said.
Caputo said the event has garnered a good crowd in the past from those who come to pay tribute to the lives lost. Altman has attended for years to watch the proceedings, and said he is expecting the event to be just as emotional as every previous year.
“I think what they’ll see is people who have the passion of life celebrating the people and the family members who have passed away,” Altman said. “We celebrate and we memorialize the gifts and the laws they have given us, that protect and have saved many miners.
“If you leave there and you’re not moved, you’re cold.”
The memorial service begins at 1 p.m. this Sunday, Nov. 17 on the memorial site on Llewellyn Run Road outside Mannington, and anyone is invited to attend.