West Virginia's Farmington No. 9 Mine Memorial Will be Virtual for the Frist Time Ever
By Eddie Trizzino
November 11, 2020 - On Nov. 20 1968, gas and dust ignited in the Farmington No. 9 Mine causing an explosion that killed 78 miners.
The incident led to changes in federal laws that govern the health and safety standards mines across the country operate under due to the widows of the men who died. The widows lobbied Congress to enact the new laws to ensure an incident of that magnitude could never happen again.
"Too many widows, too many orphans were created by unsafe work practices in coal companies, and we can't ever let that happen again," said Del. Mike Caputo, (D-50). "They could have just went home and everybody would have been OK that they wanted to grieve. But they took their grief and turned it into power, and they lobbied Congress and said they never wanted another family to go through this."
Rick Altman, vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, right, records a speech for the Farmington No. 9 Mine memorial virtual service to be held Nov. 15 at 1 p.m. online. Looking on are Jason Fry, left, and Del. Mike Caputo, (D-50).
Photo: Eddie Trizzino
Since that tragedy occurred, members of the United Mine Workers of America have honored the men who perished in the explosion, by holding a memorial service at the site of the sealed mine. This year, however, the coronavirus pandemic has caused the UMWA to move the memorial service online, to avoid any health or safety risks surrounding COVID-19.
"With the pandemic situation the way it is, it is paramount not only with president (Cecil) Roberts but the United Mine Workers of America that we still honor the fallen people at the No. 9," said Rick Altman, international vice president of District 31 of the UMWA. "We're going to do it in the virtual world, but we want to make sure that everybody understands that times are different this year. But our heart and our love is still with the fallen members of the mine."
To make this virtual memorial a reality, members of the UMWA have recorded speeches and video of a wreath-laying ceremony similar to those held during ceremonies of the past. Caputo said the event will be as similar to the real-life event as possible.
"We put our heads together, we have been on video conference calls with international staff the last several days trying to put this thing together," Caputo said. "We want to make it as much like the normal ceremony that we can, up to and including going to the site and placing the wreaths in honor of those men."
Adam Frye, representative for UMWA District 31, said members of the union would be traveling to the site with some of the families of the deceased miners to lay the wreaths, which will help maintain another tradition of the memorial.
"We're going to take people to the monument and have them place wreaths for the International Union and for the families," Frye said. "So it's going to pretty much play out the same way it always has. Even though we're not going to be there, we're still going to do the same thing."
According to Altman, the memorial ceremony is often the only time in a year that the current UMWA members see the families of the fallen miners. Although they won't be seeing many of them in person this year, Altman said they are happy to still be able to hold a virtual event.
"Some of the families are a little upset, and rightfully so, I get their point," Altman said. "The bulk of them are grateful even in the situation we're in now, that the loss that we have all shared has not been forgotten."
Caputo said the ceremony is to remind everyone about the sacrifice the miners endured to make the working conditions safe for every miner since the disaster.
"It is so important to President Roberts and Vice President Altman that we find a way to honor the men who fell to this tragedy in 1968," Caputo said. "They made our lives so much better; the first substantial coal mine health and safety bill was passed in 1969, and it was absolutely solely due to those miners losing their lives."
Altman, too, said the miners who died in 1968 are heroes, and the ceremony acts as a yearly reminder to the people of West Virginia, and coal operators, that this kind of incident can never happen again.
"We want to send a message to the state of West Virginia, coal operators, they need to be reminded also," Altman said. "These are heroes, and with that being said, we are here to remind everybody of the true and total sacrifice these individuals made."
Altman said the video will be released at 1 p.m. Nov. 15 on the UMWA's Facebook and YouTube pages, where they will remain posted for future viewing.
Caputo said he hopes to see just as many people turn on the video as would be at the ceremony in a normal year, because it was a promise made by the UMWA to continue memorializing the miners who passed.
"We made a promise that we're always going to honor these men, and we're going to keep this promise," Caputo said.