West Virginia Officials Observe Anniversary of Farmington Mine Disaster
By John Mark Shaver
November 18, 2020 - When an explosion at the Consol No. 9 Mine in Farmington echoed through the hollows of Marion County, West Virginia on Nov. 20, 1968, killing 78 men in the process, locals didn’t know the national impact the disaster would have.
Now, 52 years later, officials are remembering the sacrifices those 78 men made, and the significance their deaths had on the future of coal mining.
Del. Mike Caputo, former vice president of the United Mine Workers of America International District 31, explained why the explosion — known now as the Farmington Mine Disaster — is so important to West Virginia and United States history.
“This certainly wasn’t the worst disaster in terms of miners who were killed in an explosion, and it certainly wasn’t the first,” Caputo said. “What was different about this one was that, thanks to the media, people all over the state and all over the world, quite frankly, saw what was happening in Farmington through satellite imagery. …
“The world saw what had been happening for years in the coal fields. There were explosions and deaths in a lot of operations. … This was the first time people saw those tragedies.”
National coverage of the disaster in part led to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
The act requires two annual inspections of every surface coal mine and four at every underground mine, in addition to instituting fines and other penalties for safety violations, with legal action to be taken if violations are determined to be done knowingly.
The act also laid out basic safety and health procedures, and those who were permanently affected by mine-caused diseases like black lung were compensated accordingly.
However, Caputo stressed that the act would have never been passed if it weren’t for the families of those who died in the explosion.
“The widows of those miners decided that they were not going to stand idly by, and they wanted to turn their pain into something good,” Caputo said. “They marched on Washington, and they lobbied Congress for the first real coal mine health and safety law ever passed in this country. … Those 78 miners’ families literally saved hundreds of thousands of miners because of the safety laws they forced Congress to pass.”
Rick Altman, the current vice president for District 31 of the UMWA, shared Caputo’s sentiment, and said that these 78 men and their families should always be honored.
“The miners are true heroes,” Altman said. ”The families who went to Washington D.C. to make the case for all miners are heroes of this country. They moved a nation to keep miners safer, and for that, they should never be forgotten.”
Normally, the UMWA and other local officials gather at the site of the disaster — now a memorial to those who died — and hold a service on or near the anniversary of it’s happening. Caputo said that the service is always very moving, and the bloodlines of those who died in the mines are present every year.
“When we have this (service), you don’t know how many family members show up,” Caputo said. “We’re talking child and grandchildren and great grandchildren of these men, many of whom never got to know (the miners). They never got to meet their grandfather. It’s important that we honor those families, and they come up to us every year and thank us for doing this.”
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the service isn’t able to be held this year, however, the UMWA developed a video memorial specifically for this year’s anniversary that can be watched online.
Caputo said that, even if they couldn’t gather in person, he, Altman and the rest of the UMWA still wanted to do something this year.
“We thought (the video memorial) was the best way to honor and keep in remembrance that tragedy, because we didn’t want to put anybody at risk under these COVID times,” Caputo said. “Our union has advocated health and safety for everyone, and we felt we had to do the same here.”
Caputo encouraged those in the community to seek out the video, or even make the trip to the Farmington memorial this weekend if they have the chance.
“If you have a family member who works or worked for a coal mine, you should visit that monument and you should watch this service,” Caputo said. “That family member you have that came home safe every night after each shift is because of the sacrifices these men and their families made.”
Altman agreed, saying that coal mining is integral to the culture of Marion County and that everyone should take time out of their schedules to come together — even if it’s virtually — and honor the 78 men who lost their lives 52 years ago.
“Especially in today’s society, this is where all races and all religions come together and see each other as family,” Altman said. “To make the trek out, you will feel that at the site. If you watch the video online, I think that same feeling comes through electronically. What we project is never forgetting your family, and the love of family and the love of each other. That’s the biggest thing we try to bring across. We all need to stick together.”
The virtual Farmington Mine Disaster Memorial can be found online at the UMWA’s Facebook page and YouTube channel here.