In memoriam: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster

Photo by Bob Campione

Bonnie Stewart, an award-winning journalist and former professor of journalism at West Virginia University, is the editorial adviser for Daily Titan, California State University, Fullerton’s student newspaper. While at WVU, she spent five years researching and writing No.9: The 1968 Farmington Coal Mine Disaster, an investigative book about the mining disaster that killed seventy-eight men at a Consolidation Coal Company mine on November 20, 1968. In 2014, the miners’ families sued the coal company, which subpoenaed Stewart for unpublished interviews. Claiming reporter’s privilege under the First Amendment, she fought the subpoena in federal court and won.

Fifty years have passed since seventy-eight coal miners died underground in the Consolidation Coal No. 9 mine in Farmington, West Virginia. Some good came from that tragedy. The deaths moved Congress to pass the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which is credited with saving untold numbers of miners. Although that has given the families of the seventy-eight dead some comfort, it has not erased what happened that cold November day in 1968 or why it happened.

Some have called the No. 9 disaster an accident. It was not an accident.

The mine blew up because someone or some people who worked for the Consolidation Coal Company made a conscious decision to put production above safety.

As painful as it is to remember, here is what no one should forget.

One of the mine’s large ventilation fans—the Mods Run fan—threw off its blades in the early morning hours of November 20, 1968, and sent smoke billowing into the night air.

All the fans were essential; they forced fresh air into the mine and flushed out the volatile methane gas that coal naturally emits. Each fan was equipped with a safety alarm to warn the miners when a fan went down. If a fan could not be restarted within fifteen minutes, the law required the men to be evacuated from the affected areas of the mine.

When the Mods Run fan blew apart and caught fire, the alarm did not sound and the men were not called out of the mine. Twenty-one men managed to escape the inferno, but seventy-eight men died that day, and ten days later the mine was sealed with the men inside. Almost a year later, Consolidation Coal Company reopened the mine and began trying to recover bodies. In 1970, when miners were working on the Mods Run fan, one of the miners discovered evidence that someone had used jumper wires to disable the Mods Run safety alarm prior to the explosion. The miner reported the tampering to a federal inspector, Larry L. Layne, who was on duty during the reopening of the mine. Mr. Layne reported the breach to top federal officials in a memo documenting his findings, but they did not act on what could have been deemed criminal activity.

The memo did not come to light until 2008, when a librarian at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy Library in Beaver, West Virginia, helped me find it among the boxes of documents on the disaster that had yet to be indexed.  At that time, Scott Finn and I produced the story for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

Make no mistake, the No. 9 mine had many other problems the Consolidation Coal Company failed to remedy. Too much methane gas. Too much coal dust. Poorly maintained electrical equipment. The company’s negligence is well documented in the public records, including mine inspection reports and statements taken during what turned out to be a bungled investigation by both the state and federal governments.

Failure to operate a safe mine was not an accident, nor were the deaths of the seventy-eight coal miners, yet the Consolidation Coal Company was never held accountable.

Think about the loss to the families and the community—seventy-eight fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, friends. And consider the torment of hoping, for ten days, your loved one would be rescued only to have the mine sealed with the men inside.

More than nine months passed before the mine was reopened and other miners began digging their way through the mine to recover the bodies of their friends and coworkers. The macabre excavation continued until early 1978, ending with the recovery of fifty-nine men. Nineteen men remain forever buried deep within the mountain.

Try to wrap your head around the intensity of the loss and the lingering effects on families and an entire community. As I researched the No. 9 disaster and talked to families of the dead and to men who worked in the No. 9 during the recovery, I saw the pain on their faces and heard it in their voices. The trauma they endured will never go away.

Every year the people in the communities affected by the disaster come together to pay tribute to the seventy-eight men who died. They will come together this year, too, and stand before the black granite monument that bears the names of the dead who were killed as they toiled in the coal.

Had the explosion been an accident, had the safety alarm simply malfunctioned, perhaps the remembering would in some way be more bearable. Instead, knowing that someone disabled the fan’s safety alarm on purpose and knowing that officials covered up the truth makes mourning the dead too difficult to describe.

Names of the Disaster Victims

Victims Recovered
Arthur A. Anderson Jr.
Thomas D. Ashcraft
Jimmy Barr
Thomas Boggess
Harold W. Butt
Lee E. Carpenter
David V. Cartwright
Dale E. Davis
Albert R. DeBerry
George O. Decker
James E. Efaw
Joe Ferris
Robert L. Glover
Forrest B. Goff
John F. Gouzd
Charles F. Hardman
Ebert E. Hartzell
Simon P. Hayes
Roy F. Henderson Sr.
Steve Horvath
James Jones
Robert D. Kerns
Charles E. King
James R. Kniceley
George R. Kovar
David Mainella Sr.
Walter R. Martin
Hartsel L. Mayle
Dennis N. McDonald
Wayne R. Minor
Charles E. Moody
Paul O. Moran
Adron W. Morris
Joseph Muto
Randall R. Parsons
Raymond R. Parsons
Nicholas Petro
Fred Burt Rogers
William D. Sheme
Robert J. Sigley
Henry J Skarzinski
Russell D. Snyder
Jerry L. Stoneking
Harry L. Strait
Albert Takacs
Dewey Tarley
Frank Tate Jr.
Goy A. Taylor
Hoy B. Taylor
Homer E. Tichenor
Dennis L. Toler
John W. Toothman
Gorman H. Trimble
Roscoe M. Triplett
William T. Walker
James H. Walter
Lester B. Willard
Lloyd William Wilson
Jerry R. Yanero Jr.

Victims Not Recovered
Jack O. Armstrong
Orval D. Beam
John Joseph Bingamon
Louis S. Boros
William E. Currence
Howard A. Deel
Virgil Pete Forte
H. Wade Foster
Aulda G. Freeman Jr.
Paul F. Henderson Jr.
Junior M. Jenkins
Pete J. Kaznoski Sr.
Frank Matish
Emilio D. Megna
Jack D. Michael
John Sopuch
William L. Takacs
Edwin A. Tennant
Edward A. Williams

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