CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — 54 years ago, the Farmington community experienced a devastating tragedy, resulting in the deaths of 78 miners. On Wednesday, November 20, 1968, an explosion tore through the Consolidation Coal Company’s No. 9 mine that would claim the lives of most of the nearly 100 miners working at the time of the blast.
Farmington is not a large community and everyone there was impacted by the explosion and lost someone in their family or someone they knew. It was inescapable. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who was born and raised in Farmington, said he always knew when it was payday because the miners would come and buy their weekly groceries.
“Everyone was tied one way or another to the coal industry,” said Manchin in an interview with 12 News. “Whether you had a father or grandfather, or you had an uncle or a cousin or a brother that worked in the mines that helped support the family. Or you had a business like we did, my grandfather owned a grocery store, and my father owned a furniture store connected 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 only seven years old. His neighbor Harry Dunmire, who they called “Pinchy,” worked the day shift at the then Jamison Coal and Coke Company No. 9 mine, which would later be named the Consol No. 9 mine. Manchin said he and Pinchy were very close and would play ball together after he came 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 throw some baseball. “He’s going to be late today,” his wife said. Little did he realize at the time, the No. 9 mine had just suffered an explosion that killed 16 workers. He asked after his friend Pinchy again the next day, “He’s still at work,” Mersha said.
“Eventually, on the third or fourth day, she had to explain to me that Pinchy wasn’t coming home, he got killed in the mine explosion. That was my first realization of how it could upturn your life. As a small boy, but also the family and the close-knit community. We lost so many people.”
14 years later on November 20, 1968, Manchin got a phone call from his mother telling him about the explosion. Immediately, it was unclear how extensive the damage was or how many people were injured, as several miners were able 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 out. According to the book, “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster,” by Bonnie E. Stewart, the last men to escape the explosion are depicted here.
Later, Manchin flew over the site of the explosion during his preparation to be drafted into the airforce.
“We flew over the mine portal and the smoke billowing out of that hole was just 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 in there. I knew my friends were in there,” Manchin said.
For over a week following the disaster, reporters from across the state and across the country would flood into Farmington, along with rescuers, coal company and government officials, and others from outside of Farmington who came to administer whatever help they could.
One of those reporters was Bob Fulton—who 12 News viewers regularly see as a forecaster 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 the scene was very fast-paced, and larger outlets from New York and Pittsburgh were already beginning to arrive and would continue to stay for days more as the situation developed.
Consolidation Coal had established an area for media outlets to congregate so they could more effectively give updates on the situation, though these updates were never as regular as the people of Farmington wanted. Fulton said the thing that stood out to him the most while he was there was the desperation in the faces and voices of the loved ones of the miners still trapped inside.
“…the desperation of trying to get to those miners as quickly as possible, and watching the smoke just boiling out of the mine, and the frustration of the rescue crews wanting desperately to get in there, but knowing they could not,” Fulton said.
At one point, Fulton said they were trying to confirm a report that, as rescuers were trying to get a reading on the temperature inside the mine, the device they used to measure the temperature had melted due to the extreme heat.
“It was an event that I hope I never see again, and I’ve been to a few disasters since then where people lost their lives, but I would hope never to have to cover something like this again,” Fulton said.
Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the Consol No. 9 explosion is how preventable the disaster was. The No. 9 mine had a history of explosions—one explosion in 1965 that killed four, and another in 1954 that killed 16—with large quantities of methane gas being a large contributing factor in both explosions. A report created by the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Mines following the 1954 explosion revealed that only one month before the explosion, a federal survey of the No. 9 mine showed it was producing 3,248,568 cubic feet of methane gas every 24 hours, and gas in “explosive concentrations” was found in open
workings during the early recovery operations after the disaster.
In the book “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster” by Bonnie E. Stewart, you can find numerous accounts from miners and mine inspection documents that gas and coal dust were a constant problem throughout the operation of the No. 9 mine. It was, by all accounts, primed for a disaster like this to happen. Three days before the explosion, Walter Sovekosky, a motorman who would take trips of coal cars through the mine, said there was so much dust in the air, “you couldn’t see hardly at all.” His firebosses also noted that several areas in the shaft needed stoppings to prevent methane gas from liberating into the mine, but when they returned to the surface, they indicated the sections were “safe.”
At 3:00 a.m. 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 were able to make it out alive, the scale of the fires and the amount of smoke meant the mine had to be sealed, 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 later at a few other papers before moving to West Virginia in 2005. Stewart was new to the state and was talking with 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 beginning of a three-and-a-half-year dive into the events of the disaster.
While discussing this new project in her class, one of her students, Justin Weaver, said she would need introductions if she really wanted to get to know the people of Farmington.
“You can’t just go talk to people about the most hideous thing that’s happened to them in their lives, you got 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 hurtful stories.”
Stewart said the grief surrounding the tragedy was the most challenging aspect when approaching her research, not just hearing it herself, but for the family members of the victims who are still grieving 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 sifting through archives and unsorted documents to get all the facts Stewart needed before she felt she could tell the story of the Farmington mine disaster in the way it deserved. Stewart said an entire room in her house in South Park was filled with book material, her walls plastered with drawings, timelines and maps of the No. 9 mine.
However, when her book was finally published, she felt it was worth it, saying many widows of victims who died in the mine said they felt a sense of justice just by having it out there.
If there is a lesson to take away from this tragedy, it’s that we all must be vigilant to dangers where we work, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of friends and coworkers. This disaster was a critical element in the passing of the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, though it is inarguable that this kind of regulation was required far before the tragedy in Farmington ever occurred.
Make sure that 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 a production to identify a dangerous situation and prevent it from happening.Joe Manchin
When you see bad things happen 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, and especially in a very dangerous profession, and if everybody’s not doing what they’re supposed to do, people are going to die. And it’s up to the state and federal inspectors, the coal mine companies, and the union to make sure that people aren’t going to 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 people who run these mines.Bonnie E. Stewart
A service to remember the lives lost on November 20, 1968, will be held in Farmington at 1 p.m. 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 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19.