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Blast lengthens mine tragedy list

Sago. This week, the Upshur County mine joins a list with names like Farmington and Loveridge.

It will live with Hominy Falls, Eccles and Glen Rodgers.

Sometimes, it seems that West Virginia’s history is a long line of mining disasters.

Names of mine disasters across the country, and from non-coal mining, live on as well.

Centralia, where 111 Illinois coal miners died in 1947; the Cherry Mine, also in Illinois, where a fire claimed 259 lives in 1909; and Sunshine, the Idaho silver mine where 91 workers were killed by a 1972 fire.

The worst of them all was right here in West Virginia. In December 1907, 362 miners died in an explosion at Monongah.

The 12 miners killed by Monday morning’s explosion at the Sago Mine brings to 301 the total number of deaths from the 20 coal mining disasters in West Virginia since 1950.

“We’ve had a long string of disasters in West Virginia,” said Ron Lewis, a West Virginia University historian who has written extensively about the coal industry. “It’s just one big, long list.”

Lewis said that the disasters in West Virginia’s history have become ingrained in the state’s culture.

“This disaster mentality is kind of embedded in the culture,” Lewis said. “Even people who aren’t related to the coal industry sort of related to the news from the coalfields.”

Lewis said that he doesn’t see this mentality as fatalism.

Instead, he said, it may have become the cost of doing business to many residents.

“If you want to stay here and earn a decent living, this is what you’re going to be doing,” Lewis said. “In our culture, that’s what we do.”

In numerous appearances on television, Gov. Joe Manchin has reminded the nation that his state’s residents have lived with the dangers of mining for more than 100 years.

“Our people have been extremely brave for generations and generations,” said Manchin, a former coal broker who lost an uncle and many friends in the Farmington disaster.

Bruce Watzman, a safety expert with the National Mining Association, cautioned against industry critics who wonder why miners still toil beneath the earth.

“There are people who will look you in the eye and say, ‘We do what?’” Watzman said. “They don’t understand that coal provides 52 percent of our electricity. They don’t understand that in the future, we will be using coal to produce gas for our transportation industry.”

Carol Raulston, a National Mining Association spokeswoman, said that the most significant current safety issue may be trying to properly train the huge number of new miners joining the field as the business booms.

Nationally and in West Virginia, mine safety has improved dramatically in recent years.

On its Web site, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration reports that mine “disasters” — defined as accidents claiming five or more lives — “once were appallingly common.”

In 1907 alone, there were 18 U.S. coal mine disasters. Among those was Monongah, an accident so terrible that it pushed Congress to create the Bureau of Mines to try to make mines safer.

“Mine accidents have declined dramatically in number and severity through decades of research, technology, and preventative programs,” MSHA says. “Today, mine accidents resulting in five or more deaths are no longer common.”

During the first 25 years of the 20th century, there were 305 reported coal mine disasters across the United States. By the quarter century that ended in 1975, that number was cut to 35.

The Sago Mine makes 15 since 1976.

In West Virginia, Sago is the worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

The last time that nine or more coal miners were killed in one accident was 1968. That year, 78 miners died in an explosion at CONSOL’s No. 9 Mine in Farmington, Marion County. That disaster prompted Congress to pass the federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969.

John A. Williams, a historian at Appalachian State University, said, while mining is important to the region’s economy, it is also an industry that is “prone to disaster.”

“The best thing you can say about the current situation is it’s not as bad as it was,” Williams said. “But, the same forces are at work.

“There are geologic and human factors at work, but mine safety is a societal good that does not generate a lot of financial gain,” Williams said. “It’s a legal responsibility of coal companies, but they often don’t follow through on it.”

Lewis recalled the statement of corrupt United Mine Workers President Tony Boyle after 78 of his union’s members died at Farmington.

“This is an unfortunate accident,” Boyle said in a speech 55 hours after the disaster.

“I share the grief. I know what it’s like to be in an explosion,” Boyle said. “I’ve gone through several of them.

“But as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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