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Victims of No. 9 mining disaster honored at memorial

by Gary A. Harki

STAFF WRITER

MANNINGTON -- Miners and their families gathered at the Farmington No. 9 mine memorial Sunday to honor 79 miners killed there nearly 35 years ago.

National coverage of the tragedy spurred passage of better federal mine safety laws in 1969.

On Nov. 20, 1968, at approximately 5:30 a.m., an explosion rocked the mine, trapping many miners far under ground, said Gary Martin, who was in the mine when the explosion occurred. The air quickly filled with coal dust and carbon dioxide, suffocating most of those trapped inside, Martin said.

Martin and the seven men in his crew quickly made their way to a ventilation shaft, but were still 608 feet below ground. There they waited for rescue, Martin said.

"Luckily, an elderly gentleman noticed smoke and dust coming out of the air shaft and came to investigate," Martin said.

The trapped miners yelled up to the man, who went for help. The eight men were finally rescued by a cran, more than five hours after the explosion, Martin said.

They were some of the lucky few to escape the mine. All 78 victims of the mine were dead in little more than an hour because of the carbon dioxide in the air, Martin said.

Farmington resident and West Virginia Secretary of State Joe Manchin has vivid memories of the disaster.

"My mother called and said her brother was due to change shifts when the explosion happened," said Manchin, who lost several friends and relatives in the disaster.

"I had a friend who flew us over the area the day after it happened. You just could not believe the destruction, the unbelievable devastation," said Manchin.

One of Manchin's worst memories of the event was when the mine was sealed to stop the fire raging beneath the ground.

By sealing the mine, all hopes that the miners' families had of finding their loved ones alive was lost, Manchin said.

Eventually the mine was unsealed and bodies were recovered, Martin said.

Frank Tate lost his father, Frank Tate Jr., in the disaster. At the time of the explosion, Tate could not imagine ever going down into a mine himself.

But times do change. Tate had children of his own, and a family to raise. To support his family he worked in coal mines for 21 years.

"This is a time to remember. Thirty-five years have gone by, but it still seems like yesterday," said Tate. "(Tates father) will never get to see his grandkids, or great-grandkids, but I believe he is looking down on us."

The No. 9 memorial is off the beaten path, down a winding road off of U.S. 250 and standing on the side of an otherwise wooded hill.

The spot was chosen not for what lies above ground but below it -- the final resting place of the 19 miners never recovered.

Cecil Roberts is the international president of the United Mine Workers of America and a Vietnam veteran.

"For me, visiting this spot is very much like visiting the Vietnam memorial," said Roberts, who lost both of his grandfathers in mining accidents. "My father never wanted me to work in the mines, but I needed an income. I had a family to provide for. It gets in the blood, it becomes what you do."

Some good did come out of the terrible disaster, however.

"It was the first time the nation watched as that type of tragedy unfolded," said Roberts.

In the years after the new coal mine safety laws were passed, coal mine fatalities declined 80 percent, Roberts said.