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‘Very surreal’

Today marks 47th anniversary of the Farmington Mine Disaster

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FAIRMONT — Rolling smoke, illuminated by flames, poured from the Llewellyn Run and Mod’s Run portals of the Farmington No. 9 mine on Nov. 20, 1968, after an explosion rocked the mine at 5:25 a.m. that day.

Following the explosion, 78 miners were trapped in the mine owned by Mountaineer Coal Co. at the time.

Reports from that day in the Fairmont Times, the Times West Virginian’s predecessor, state smoke and flames shot as high as 150 feet into the air and a threat of noxious gases filled the mine. Three subsequent explosions happened throughout the day until about 10 p.m., though mine rescue teams continued efforts to try to rescue all 78 men who were trapped.

Of the 99 men who went to work on the “cateye shift” at midnight that Tuesday in November, 21 made their way to safety following the explosions, five of which were taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation and injuries.

Llewellyn smoke

The Farmington No. 9 mine exploded on Nov. 20, 1968, sending clouds of smoke into the air. 

Six production crews of six men each were known to have been working on sections between the Llewellyn and Mod’s Run portals, and they were given scant chance of surviving the explosive forces that wrecked both facilities.

As officials organized the scene, family members of those on the shift waited anxiously to hear if their loved ones were alive.

It wasn’t until 10 p.m. on the day of the explosion that a list of those trapped in the mine was made available by coal company officials. That was due to the fact that personnel records were kept in the office at the Llewellyn portal. Those records couldn’t be reached because of the fire, smoke and wreckage at the facility, which was located four miles west of Mannington, West Virginia, and had been opened two years prior to the incident.

Pregnant woman

The pregnant wife of a trapped coal miner waits for news in the company store near the No. 9 mine. 

Other records in Mountaineer headquarters were searched during the day and a personal check on each miner carried on the rolls of the midnight shift was made.

Officials continued their planning efforts throughout the day, and no attempt to begin rescue operations was made. At the time, officials said it would have been necessary to wait until the fire, which apparently covered the mine between Llewellyn and Mod’s Run portals, at least two miles apart, “calms down.”

William Poundstone, then Consol’s executive vice president for operations, told the press later that day that rescue operations were still impossible because of the density of the fire.

Seven rescue teams at the time made of three from Federal No. 1 mine of Eastern Associated Coal Corp. at Grant Town, and one each from Mountaineer’s Loveridge, Williams, Robinson Run and Jordan mines, arrived on the scene before 9 a.m.

The teams remained on standby throughout the day. Additional crews were made available when a rotating shift system was established.

Since communication into the mine was totally lost by the explosion, Poundstone said there was no way of knowing if the miners inside were alive.

Poundstone said at the time, changes in ventilation had been made in an effort to calm the fire. It was understood that consisted of sealing the return air side of the Mod’s Run shaft, where the fan was blown out by a second explosion some 15 minutes after the original ignition.

Fresh air was going into the mine through the Mahan’s Run shaft. This flow was reported to have carried oxygen into the fire area. Officials didn’t want to shut all the fans off due to the chance that the miners were alive.

Multiple Farmington, West Virginia, residents, along with others residing in Fairmont, Barrackville and places surrounding the area, reported they either felt the concussion or heard the rumble of the underground blast.

Some of the debris from the explosion was thrown against cars of the miners working the cateye shift that were parked near the portal. The vehicles, soot covered and at times completely obscured by smoke, remained in the parking lot throughout the days following the incident.

At the time of the disaster, Michael Aloi was 10 years old and lived in Farmington.

Aloi, U.S. Magistrate judge for the Northern District of West Virginia, recalled the incident, stating that “the atmosphere was very surreal” following the explosions.

“Everyone had hope because that’s all you had,” he said.

Going to school in the following days, Aloi said there wasn’t a classroom where at least one student didn’t have a relative killed in the disaster.

To this day, when Aloi sees pictures from the disaster, it makes him sick to his stomach.

Farmington residents at the time reported a controversy about whether or not to seal the mine. Some thought it was a way of telling people that they were going to stop searching for survivors, and some thought it wasn’t safe to go any further.

By Nov. 28, eight days after the disaster, air samples showed there was no possible way to sustain human life inside the mine.

By Nov. 30, concrete was poured into the opening to seal off oxygen from the mine to stop the raging fire. That sealed the fate of the 78 men sill unaccounted for, and the hopes were dashed of friends and family members holding only fleeting possibilities of rescue.

In September 1969 the shafts were opened to recover the bodies of the mine disaster victims. After nine years of searching, teams were unable to locate the remains of 19 miners who are now forever entombed in the depths of the mine.

The disaster brought about big changes in mine safety regulations.

In 1969, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed. It included provisions to increase the frequency of inspections, amplified federal enforcement powers and strengthened mine safety and health standards.

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.

Recently a lawsuit was filed by administrators of the estates of two miners killed in the explosion on behalf of themselves and the estates of 76 other miners.

In November 2014, Michael D. Michael and Judith A. Kuhn filed a class action suit in Marion County against Consolidated Coal and the estate of Alex Kovarbasich, who the plaintiffs said was the chief electrician at the No. 9 mine at the time of the explosion.

The plaintiffs asked for $110,000 per member of the class action suit, interest and punitive damages “for the intentional, grossly negligent and reprehensible actions on the part of the defendants.”

The suit is partially based on a 1970 memo written by federal mine inspector Larry Layne, which states that a ventilation fan’s safety alarm was disabled prior to the explosion so “when the fan would stop or slow down, there was no way of anyone knowing about it because the alarm signal was bypassed,” the memo read.

The suit claims that on June 9, 2014, the identity of the person who intentionally made the fam alarm system inoperable was discovered and that “Kovarbasich was acting under the direction and control of defendant Consolidation Coal Co.”

The suit is ongoing in federal court.

An annual memorial service takes place at the Farmington No. 9 Mine Memorial on Flat Run Road in Mannington, just off U.S. 250.

Copies of “Misfortune in the Mountains: A Time Line of Tragedies that Shaped West Virginia” are available at the Times West Virginian. For more information, call 304-367-2500.

Email Emily Gallagher at egallagher@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @EGallagherTWV.

List of names of those killed in 1968 Farmington, WV No. 9 Mine Disaster

Names of deceased Age Died Hometown Body Recovered Job In Mine
Arthur A. Anderson Jr. 50 Farmington, WV Yes Rockduster
Jack O. Armstrong 56 Mill Creek, WV No Bolt Machine
Thomas D. Ashcraft 31 Mannington, WV Yes General Inside
Jimmy Barr 31 Wadestown, WV Yes Buggy Helper
Orval D. Beam 52 Ellamore, WV No Buggy Helper
John Joseph Bingamon 53 Kingmont, WV No Motorman
Thomas Boggess 47 Flemington, WV Yes General Inside
Louis S. Boros 38 Farmington, WV No Joy Operator
Harold W. Butt 42 Grantsville, WV Yes Supplies
Lee E. Carpenter 37 Farmington, WV Yes Mechanic
David V. Cartwright 35 Carolina, WV Yes Mechanic
William E. Currence 49 Fairmont, WV No Motorman
Dale E. Davis 40 Lumberport, WV Yes Section Foreman
Albert R. DeBerry 44 Mannington, WV Yes Mine Operator
George O. Decker 42 Fairmont, WV Yes Mine Operator
Howard A. Deel 30 Fairview, WV No Mine Operator
James E. Efaw N/A Mannington, WV Yes Mechanic
Joe Ferris 39 Shinnston, WV Yes Trackman
Virgil A. Forte 45 Fairmont, WV No General Inside
H. Wade Foster 50 Mannington, WV No Motorman
Audla G. Freeman Jr. 30 Farmington, WV No Motorman
Robert L. Glover 39 Mannington, WV Yes Mechanic
Forrest B. Goff 53 Shinnston, WV Yes Mine Operator
John F. Gouzd 42 Farmington, WV Yes General Inside
Charles F. Hardman 43 Shinnston, WV Yes Motorman
Ebert E. Hartzell 27 Farmington, WV Yes Bolt Machine
Simon P. Hayes N/A Owings, WV Yes Buggy Helper
Paul F. Henderson Jr. N/A Farmington, WV No General Inside
Roy F. Henderson 60 Farmington, WV Yes Asst. Maintenance Foreman
Steve Horvath N/A Carolina, WV Yes Bolt Machine
Junior M Jenkins N/A Buckhannon, WV No Buggy Operator
James Jones N/A Fairmont, WV Yes Buggy Operator
Pete J. Kaznoski Sr. 60 Barrackville, WV No Buggy Helper
Robert D. Kerns 32 Fairview, WV Yes Mechanic
Edward A. Williams 50 Lumberport, WV No Mechanic
Jack D. Michael 44 Rivesville, WV No Mechanic
Paul O. Moran 59 Fairmont, WV Yes Joy Operator
Jerry L. Stoneking 24 Mannington, WV Yes Rookduster
William L. Takacs N/A Farmington, WV No General Inside
Henry J. Skarsinski 58 Monongah, WV Yes General Inside
Walter R. Martin 65 Fairmont, WV Yes General Inside
Nicholas Petro N/A Farmington, WV Yes Trackman
John Sopuch 42 Farmington, WV No Mechanic
Edwin A Tennant 45 Fairview, WV No Buggy Helper
Frank Matish 57 Shinnston, WV No Joy Operator
George R. Kovar 31 Farmington, WV Yes Buggy Operator
Roscoe M. Triplett 54 Mannington, WV Yes Joy Operator
Hartsel L. Mayle 51 Grafton, WV Yes Joy Operator
Gorman H. Trimble N/A Fairmont, WV Yes Buggy Helper
James R. Kniceley 43 Idamay, WV Yes Wireman
Lester B. Willard 49 Farmington, WV Yes Motorman
Charles E. Moody 46 Fairmont, WV Yes Dispatcher
William T. Walker 44 Rivesville, WV Yes Asst. Maintenance Foreman
Albert Takacs 48 Farmington, WV Yes Asst. Mine Foreman
David Mainella 61 Fairmont, WV Yes Section Foreman
Emilio D. Megna 48 Worthington, WV No Section Foreman
Randall Ray Parsons 19 Mannington, WV Yes General Inside
James Henry Walter N/A Fairmont, WV Yes General Inside
Dennis N. McDonald 42 Worthington, WV Yes General Inside
Robert J. Sigley 22 Tunnelton, WV Yes General Inside
Jerry R. Yanero N/A Fairmont, WV Yes Trackman
Charles E. King 36 Smithfield, WV Yes Mechanic
John W. Toothman 36 Mannington, WV Yes Mechanic
Fred B. Rogers 57 Mannington, WV Yes Mechanic
Joseph Muto 48 Fairmont, WV Yes Mechanic
Lloyd W. Wilson N/A Fairmont, WV Yes Mechanic
Raymond R. Parsons N/A Mannington, WV Yes Miner Operator
Frank Tate Jr. 44 Meadowbrook, WV Yes Buggy Operator
Dewey Tarley 27 Monongah, WV Yes Bolt Machine
William D. Sheme N/A Worthington, WV Yes Buggy Operator
Adron W. Morris 59 Rivesville, WV Yes Joy Operator
Homer E. Tichenor N/A Worthington, WV Yes Miner Operator
Wayne R. Minor 49 Sand Fork, WV Yes Buggy Operator
Harry L. Strait 49 Shinnston, WV Yes Supplies
Dennis L. Toler 25 Farmington, WV Yes Trackman
Russell D. Snyder 58 Mannington, WV Yes General Inside
Goy A. Taylor 47 Bridgeport, WV Yes Bolt Machine
Hoy B. Taylor 40 Bridgeport, WV Yes Wireman

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