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49 years later, community remembers No. 9 Mine disaster

By JOHN MARK SHAVER

The Fairmont News

FARMINGTON, W.Va.  — More than 100 mine workers, family members and citizens gathered at the Farmington No. 9 Mine Memorial in remembrance of the mine’s catastrophic disaster 49 years ago.

Sharon Clelland, whose father died in the disaster when she was 5 years old, sings a rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the event of the remembrance of Farmington No. 9 Mine disaster.
(Fairmont News photo by John Mark Shaver)

The blast killed 78 miners on Nov. 20, 1968, 19 of whom are still entombed in the mine. Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, who serves as the United Mine Workers of America International District 31 vice president, spoke at the service about the memory of the event that lingers in the minds of many county and state residents to this day.

“The magnitude of the horrific day can be seen in the faces and in the voices of the family members and of the survivors of No. 9,” Caputo said. “While the years have passed, we all know that the memories of that day in the ensuing years did not fade. The UMWA believes we need to document those stories of the No. 9 disaster.”

Caputo also spoke about how the disaster and the news coverage that followed would immortalize the miners who lost their lives.

“This was certainly not the first mine explosion that happened on the coal fields of West Virginia, and it certainly wasn’t the worst when it comes to numbers, but the difference was the world had seen, for the first time through satellite imagery and satellite TV, what was going on in the hills of West Virginia and what the coal miners go through and what their families had to go through, and the conditions they had to work in,” Caputo said.

Caputo explained that since the disaster was the first of its kind to be broadcast nationwide, the resulting activism and media coverage forced the government into action to provide additional regulations and protections for coal miners that have saved innumerable miners in the nearly 50 years since.

“It was 49 years ago that the explosion rocked the hills and rocked the hollows of Marion County, West Virginia,” Caputo said. “We stand on the hallowed ground of those miners. If you’re a miner today, these folks are heroes to you, because if it were not for them, we wouldn’t have the sweeping mine safety changes that were enacted in the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

“It was because of their tragic deaths that the widows of those miners marched on Capitol Hill and demanded of Congress that no other family should have to go through what their family went through.”

The law created the Mine Safety Health Administration, increased the number of inspections done at each mine per year and increased health and safety standards, among other improvements.

UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen, the service’s keynote speaker, highlighted the results of the law, saying that the ratio of miners who died on the job before and after it was enacted is a ratio of 15 to one. Allen went on to say how important it is for everyone to keep the 78 miners in their hearts and minds for years to come.

“Forty-nine years ago, we made a promise to never forget the 78 men who lost their lives,” Allen said. “It’s a horrific image that’s burned in every coal miner’s mind. … The only thing that we can believe it looked like was the gates of Hell. We’re never going to be able to unsee those terrible pictures that we saw. All we know is that our recovered brothers and those still entombed hold up all of our futures with their sacrifice.”

Caputo shared his sentiment and encouraged anyone with memories of the killed miners to step forward and share their stories.

“Their unfortunate and tragic loss has saved the lives of countless coal miners who came after them,” Caputo said. “That story needs to be told. That story needs to be preserved.”

The service also featured a laying of about 40 wreaths and a roll call of those who died in the tragedy. The service ended with the playing of taps.

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