Farmington, W.Va. – On Sunday friends, family, union workers, and others gathered for the 51st commemoration of the Farmington Mine Disaster that killed 78 miners.
Around 5:30 a.m on November 20, 1968, there was an explosion and fire in the Consolidation Coal Company’s No.9 mine. Of the 78 miners who died that day, 19 remain entombed in the mine. They are all memorialized at a site in Marion Co., where their names engraved in stone.
Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), was in attendance and spoke with vigor about the sadness of the tragedy that changed the lives of the families for the worse. He described the site of the monument as a holy place for him and said in all his years of attending the commemoration the crowd size had seemed to increase and not diminished with the passing of time.
“This is such a wonderful tribute to those miners who died,” Roberts said. “Those widows who woke up–as I said, to bed as a wife woke up as widows not only that they woke up as the head of the household. And then 12, 14-year-old boys being told ‘you’re the man of the house now.’ People having to figure out ‘how do we pay the bills, how do we eat, how do we get through this?”
Roberts said he has a lot of admiration and respect for the families because they did not give up. Instead, they persevered for themselves and also for other coal miners by becoming activists for mine safety. He said the disaster and pressure from families changed the rules and regulations for the coal industry.
A year later, in the wake of the tragedy, Congress passed the nation’s first comprehensive mine safety and health legislation called the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969.
Levi Allen, who serves as the UMWA international secretary-treasurer, said it’s always been important for him to be a part of the ceremony and that he’s been taking part for almost ten years. He spoke at the ceremony and said the tragedy was UMWA’s history, heritage and where they come from.
“I worked 8 years in an underground coal mine,” Allen said. “I left that mine alive every day because of the effort and the sacrifices these workers made.”
He said the tragedy changed everything. Miner’s contracts changed, allowing them to have more of a say and decide who is best to represent them in the union. And that, in turn, allowed the union to step up their responsibilities in terms of protecting miners.
“Before 1968, before Farmington, you didn’t have any enforcement rights and essentially under the Bureau of Mines, if something was looked at you could make recommendations, you could say this is how something should be done but you didn’t really have enforcement you didn’t have fines that were levied you didn’t have mandatory fines, you didn’t have things that got shut down and production wasn’t really impacted the same way, so after these miners died you got true enforcement,” Allen said.
That sentiment was shared by Roberts and both men said there was no need for the tragedy to happen before the laws were changed. Roberts, whose father was a coal miner and hails from generations of coal miners, said miners had fought for decades to no avail. That is until disaster struck in Farmington in 1968.
Roberts said the bigger tragedy was that lawmakers and company owners failed mine workers for more than one hundred years before the disaster. He said they did so by denying the existence of black lung disease, by not listening to the concerns of workers and ignoring the tens of thousands of lives that were lost to being blown up, burned up and covered in coal mines since the inception of mining.
From his perspective, Allen said it was just the unfortunate nature of the country.
“Every movement in the United States of America comes on the back of the people– it didn’t need to happen,” Allen said. “It’s just sometimes people need tragedy or need heartache or hardship before they want to wake up.”