By John Mark Shaver
December 7, 2017 - More than 100 years after an explosion rocked the No. 6 and No. 8 mines in Monongah, West Virginia, family members, locals and even visitors from abroad gathered Wednesday to honor the hundreds who died in the disaster.
While the exact number of deaths is still unknown, at least 360 people perished in the Dec. 6, 1907, tragedy, which is still considered the worst mining disaster in American history.
The day of observances dedicated to the miners who died and their families began with a Mass at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Monongah.
Nancy Laughlin, whose great-grandfather, Peter Urban, was one of the only miners to escape the blast, has heard stories of that fateful day for nearly her entire life.
“Until I got older, I didn’t realize the impact of it,” Laughlin said. “They told me he was a different person after the explosion. … My remembrance is that he literally crawled to an air shaft, and I remember stories that he had to crawl over bodies to get to that shaft, and he was rescued that way.
“It just gives me pause. We all have stories of our roots, and this is one of mine. I’m glad to be able to acknowledge it and be grateful for my heritage.”
After the Mass, a ceremony was held at Monongah Town Hall, during which members of councils like La Comunita Formiana D’America Inc. and Federazione delle Associazioni della Campania USA, both representing parts of Italy, gave gifts to the town in memory of the more than 100 Italian miners who died in the blast.
“There were a lot of Italians killed in the explosion, among the other nationalities, but they seem like they have the most interest in keeping it going so that the memories of the Italian people are not forgotten,” Monongah Mayor Greg Vendetta said. “The different parts of Italy have all gotten together from where the different people came from, the miners that migrated here and died. They want to keep the whole Republic of Italy involved in this.”
Included in the gifts were a painting of a coal miner and an urn filled with soil from each Italian town the deceased miners came from.
Vendetta said the mine disaster needs to be remembered for generations to come, no matter what.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people in town aren’t familiar with mining itself,” Vendetta said. “The younger kids really don’t have a lot of interest in this, and it would be nice if they did. … It’s really pretty big in history, but it seems that when you grow up in a historical place, you really don’t grasp the history that you’re living in. It’s so nice that the Italians have shown an interest and have kept this going.”
The day’s events ended in the Mount Calvary Cemetery, where members of the Italian councils sprinkled soil from the miners’ hometowns.
The anniversary observances serve as an important reminder and a dedication to the hundreds who lost their lives in the blast, a tragedy that is still touching the hearts of some in the community to this day.
“The ceremony is very touching and very heartbreaking at the same time — to lose so many,” said Ann DeMary Eates, whose grandfather died in the disaster. “My mom was only 2 when the explosion happened, so that means a lot.”
Representatives from several councils in Italy present a special urn to Monongah Mayor Greg Vendetta during Monongah mine disaster ceremonies Wednesday. The urn was filled with soil from Italian towns that some of the deceased miners had emigrated from.