Consol No. 9 Mine
Farmington Victims Left Legacy to Nation's Miners
by Davitt McAteer
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Mine Safety and Health
Thirty years ago, on November 19, 1968, the night crew of the Consol No. 9
Farmington, W.Va., headed underground at midnight. Nothing happened that
would suggest this night's work would be different from any other.
Typically, there was humor and horseplay as the miners got ready to start
another working shift deep underground.
As big as Manhattan Island, the mine was just a few miles down the road from
Monongah, W.Va., site of the worst mine disaster in U.S. history--a December
1907 explosion that killed at least 362 miners.
About 5:30 a.m. on November 20, an explosion of nightmarish proportions
ripped through the Farmington mine. A full 12 miles away in Fairmont, W.Va.,
a motel clerk felt his chair rock under him and thought the rear section of
the motel had exploded. But area miners knew what the noise meant. As they
rushed to the mine site, fire spread rapidly.
Within several hours of the first explosion, 21 miners struggled to the
surface over various tortuous routes. But 78 others remained missing.
The media dug in at Farmington, the first major mine disaster of the
television age, relaying follow-up explosions and suspenseful rescue
attempts to the nation's living rooms in play-by-play detail.
By November 29, readings of underground gases taken at drill holes showed
the air underground could not support life, and rescuers finally admitted
defeat. To starve raging fires of oxygen, all surface entrances were sealed.
A world of holiday-season sympathy focused on Farmington as the mine was
Almost one year later, recovery work resumed. But progress was slowed by
necessary tasks such as loading rock falls, replacing ventilation and
transportation facilities, and driving new entries into the mine to bypass
Attempts to recover the bodies of missing miners continued for nearly 10
years. At last, the effort was given up and all mine entrances permanently
sealed. The bodies of 59 disaster victims had been brought to the surface,
but 19 remain forever entombed in the Farmington mine.
The ignition source that set off the original explosion never could be
determined. But investigators did find a classic combination of factors that
could have set the stage: inadequate ventilation, inadequate control of
explosive methane gas and coal dust, and inadequate testing for methane.
Helping to galvanize the forces of reform within Congress, the Farmington
disaster was a catalyst for passage of the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health
Act. That law strengthened safety standards, increased Federal mine
inspections, and gave coal miners specific safety and health rights.
Since the Farmington explosion, the coal mines of the United States have
become safer places to work.
Deaths in the Nation's coal mines dropped from 203 in 1969 to 30 last year.
Coal mine tragedies have continued to occur--too many--but fortunately,
never again on the scale of the Farmington explosion.
The potential for a mine explosion still confronts underground coal miners
today, demanding constant vigilance, especially in this winter season when
dry air and drops in barometric pressure raise the risk. But because of the
Farmington tragedy, miners and mine operators today have stronger defenses
to aid them in their vigilance against disaster--including frequent Federal
inspections, safety training, and better technology.
The legacy of the Farmington disaster did not end with the 1969 Coal Act.
That law in turn served as a model for the Occupational Safety and Health
Act of 1970, which protects workers in a wide range of industries.
In 1977, after a disastrous silver mine fire and another coal mine explosion
that killed 26, Congress strengthened the Coal Act and also extended it to
the metal and nonmetal mining industry.
Today, thousands upon thousands of workers beyond the coal industry
indirectly owe the Federal safety and health protection upon which they rely
to the Farmington disaster.
At this time of year, the thoughts of many of us in northern West Virginia
inevitably return to the tragedy of November 20, 1968, and to the families
of those who died. Nothing can restore the lives lost at Farmington. Even 30
years later, nothing can erase the pain of that loss. Yet the miners who
died in that historic explosion did not die in vain. Their legacy remains,
enshrined in law as well as in the hearts of their survivors.
, for a list of the miners