CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — 54 years ago, the community of Farmington experienced a devastating tragedy, resulting in the deaths of 78 miners. On Wednesday, November 20, 1968, an explosion rocked Consolidation Coal Company’s No. 9 mine, which would claim the lives of most of the nearly 100 miners working at the time of the explosion.
Farmington is not a large community and everyone there was impacted by the explosion and lost family members or people they knew. It was inevitable. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, born and raised in Farmington, said he always knew when payday was because miners would come and buy their weekly groceries.
“Everybody was connected in one way or another to the coal industry,” Manchin said in an interview with 12 News. “If you had a father or a grandfather, or you had an uncle or a cousin or a brother who worked in the mines and helped support the family. Or you had a business like ours, my grandfather owned a grocery store and my father owned a furniture store attached to it, but we were all dependent on the coal economy.”
Manchin said the first time he realized how deadly mines could be was in 1954, when he was just seven years old. His neighbor Harry Dunmire, who they called “Pinchy”, worked the day shift at the then Jamison Coal and Coke Company mine No. 9, which would later be called Consol mine No. 9. Manchin said that he and Pinchy were very close and they played ball together after he got home from school.
One day Manchin came home from school and asked Dunmire’s wife Mersha when he would be home from work so they could play baseball. “He’s going to be late today,” said his wife. Little did he know at the time, mine #9 had just suffered an explosion that killed 16 workers. He asked again for his friend Pinchy the next day: “He’s still at work,” said Mersha.
“Eventually on the third or fourth day, she had to explain to me that Pinchy wasn’t coming home, he died in the mine explosion. That was my first realization of how this could change her life. As a small boy, but also the family and community together. We lost so many people.”
14 years later, on November 20, 1968, Manchin received a call from his mother telling him about the explosion. It was immediately unclear the extent of the damage or how many people were injured, as several miners managed to escape after the explosion. Manchin’s uncle, John Gouzd, was one of the miners working in the mine when it exploded. He did not make it. According to the book, “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster”, by Bonnie E. Stewart, the last men to escape the explosion are pictured here.
Later, Manchin flew over the blast site during his preparation for being drafted into the air force.
“We flew over the mine portal and the smoke coming out of that hole was more than I can imagine, and the devastation where it exploded, the violence and the force of that explosion. And I knew my uncle was there. He was there. I knew my friends were there,” Manchin said.
For more than a week after the disaster, reporters from across the state and across the country flooded into Farmington, along with rescue workers, coal companies and government officials, and others from outside Farmington who came to provide whatever help they could. .
One such reporter was Bob Fulton—whom 12 News viewers regularly see as a weatherman on 12 News First Edition, 12 News at 6, and 12 News at 11; he was working as a reporter for a Parkersburg radio station at the time. Fulton arrived approximately two hours after the explosion, saying that the scene was very fast-paced and that larger New York and Pittsburgh stores were already starting to arrive and would continue to arrive for more days as the situation developed.
Consolidation Coal had established an area for the media to gather so that they could provide more effective updates on the situation, although these updates were never as regular as the people of Farmington wished. Fulton said what stood out to him most while there was the desperation on the faces and voices of the miners’ loved ones still trapped inside.
“…the desperation of trying to get to the miners as quickly as possible, and watching the smoke billow out of the mine, and the frustration of rescue workers desperately wanting to get in there but knowing they couldn’t,” Fulton said.
At one point, Fulton said he was trying to confirm a report that, while rescuers were trying to get a temperature reading inside the mine, the device used to measure the temperature had melted due to the extreme heat.
“It was an event I hope I never see again, and I’ve been to a few disasters since then where people have lost their lives, but I hope I never have to cover something like this again,” Fulton said.
Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the explosion of Consol No. 9 is how the disaster was avoidable. Mine No. 9 had a history of explosions – an explosion in 1965 that killed four and another in 1954 that killed 16 – with large amounts of methane gas being a large contributing factor in both explosions. A report created by the US Department of the Interior after the 1954 explosion revealed that just a month before the explosion, a federal survey of mine #9 showed that it was producing 3,248,568 cubic feet of methane gas every 24 hours, and gas in “explosive concentrations” was found in
functioning during the first recovery operations after the disaster.
In the book “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster” by Bonnie E. Stewart, you can find numerous reports from miners and mine inspection documents that gas and coal dust was a constant problem during the operation of mine #9. by all accounts, prepared for a disaster like this to happen. Three days before the explosion, Walter Sovekosky, a driver who took coal wagon trips through the mine, said there was so much dust in the air that “you could hardly see it.” His firefighters also noted that several areas in the shaft needed pit stops to prevent methane gas from releasing into the mine, but when they surfaced they indicated that the sections were “safe”.
At 3 am on November 20, 1968, power problems were reported in the mine, and two and a half hours later, the initial explosion rocked the mine, cutting power to several sections of the mine. Other explosions would continue for several hours. Although 21 miners managed to escape with their lives, the scale of the fires and the amount of smoke meant that the mine had to be sealed off, with 78 miners still trapped inside.
37 years later, investigative reporter Bonnie Stewart would move to West Virginia to begin teaching at West Virginia University. Stewart worked for several years at the Indianapolis Star, then at a few other newspapers before moving to West Virginia in 2005. Stewart was new to the state and was talking to a colleague about what her next project should be, which is when she learned about the Farmington Mine disaster. Little did she know that this conversation would be the start of a three-and-a-half-year dive into the events of the disaster.
As he discussed this new project in his class, one of his students, Justin Weaver, said that he would need introductions if he really wanted to get to know the people of Farmington.
“You can’t just talk to people about the most horrible thing that’s happened to them in their lives, you have to get to know them a little bit,” Stewart said. “So I spent a lot of time in the Farmington area just meeting people, talking to families, sitting at their kitchen tables drinking coffee before they trusted me because these are painful stories.”
Stewart said the grief surrounding the tragedy was the most challenging aspect of approaching her research, not just listening to it herself, but to the victims’ families who are still mourning to this day for the 78 men who died on Nov. 20. Stewart said she still talks to some of her sources regularly because of how well she got to know them.
The research for the book was far from glamorous and involved a lot of digging through archives and unclassified documents to get all the facts Stewart needed before she felt she could tell the story of the Farmington mine disaster the way it deserved to be told. Stewart said that an entire room in his South Park home was filled with book material, its walls covered with drawings, timelines and maps of mine #9.
However, when her book was finally published, she felt it was well worth it, saying that many widows of victims who died in the mine said they felt a sense of justice just for having published it.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from this tragedy, it’s that we all must be aware of the dangers where we work, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of friends and co-workers. This disaster was a critical element in the passage of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, although it is indisputable that this type of regulation was needed long before the Farmington tragedy occurred.
Make sure you are in the safest working conditions and that the people you work for take you and the value of your life seriously and allow you to stop production to identify a dangerous situation and prevent it from happening.
When you see bad things happening, say something. Sometimes you just have to stand up to the people you work for. In this case, these guys needed their jobs, you know, so it’s really hard to do that, but safety is important, especially in a very dangerous profession, and if everybody isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, people are going to die. And it’s up to state and federal inspectors, coal mining companies, and the union to make sure people don’t die in your coal mine. This is a case where the government needs to do its job, despite the politics of things and the powerful who run these mines.
Bonnie E Stewart
A service to remember the lives lost on November 20, 1968 will be held in Farmington at 1pm on Sunday, the anniversary of the disaster, and a community discussion and Q&A with author Bonnie Stewart will also be held at the Clarksburg Harrison Public Library. at 1pm on Saturday, November 19th.