FARMINGTON, W.Va. — Hundreds gathered to honor the lives and sacrifices of the 78 miners who perished in the 1968 Farmington #9 disaster, despite Sunday’s snow and cold weather.
Monday marks 49 years since the mine’s explosion, and while that day was a tragic loss for the community and the families of those miners, it also resulted in some of the most sweeping and comprehensive mine safety legislation in the U.S., said Mike Caputo, vice president of the United Mine Workers of America International District 31.
“They forced our government to enact health and safety standards that coal miners could be assured and have expectation to go home to their families at the end of their shift, so we owe them a lot,” Caputo said. “They gave up their lives for us to have a safer coal mine to work in.”
In the 49 years prior to the 1968 disaster, 59,628 people died in the mines. In the 49 years since that day, that number is 3,624, UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen said.
“Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not okay with 3,624,” Allen said. “Nobody here should be okay with 3,624, but a 15:1 reduction is a pretty good start.
“You know, it’s terrible, but we’re never going to know what caused that explosion. We’re never going to be able to unsee those terrible pictures that we saw,” he added. “All we know is that our recovered brothers and those still entombed hold up all of our futures with their sacrifice. These mens lives demanded the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.”
That significant drop in mine fatalities is why Caputo feels it’s so vital to continuing honor those men.
“If you don’t remember what happened, some folks will want to go back to those kinds of mining practices,” he said. “The operators of today have to be on notice that we’re not going backwards when it comes to coal mining health and safety, number one, but most importantly that these 78 men who perished on that fateful day, we need to remember those folks. They’re heroes.”
Missing from this year’s ceremony was Ralph Starkey, the last remaining survivor of the Farmington #9 explosion.
“He comes every year,” Caputo said. “God bless him, he couldn’t come this year because his health is very bad, but his wife came to place their wreath.”
Caputo vividly remembers November 20, 1968, at only 11 years old, because his father was also a coal miner.
“We all were very scared and knew that could happen to our loved ones as well,” he said. “My hats’ off to the widows and the families of these miners who said, ‘We’re not taking this crap anymore. We’re not going to make families go through what we went through. They’re heroes, just absolute heroes.”
Teresa Reid, now of Grafton, was 11 when her father, Hartsel Lee Miller, died in the explosion.
“I remember seeing the smoke when we watched it on TV, and mom said daddy wasn’t coming home. He was in there for awhile, but they finally got him out and we buried him,” Reid said. “It’s been different. We had no dad when we got married, no dad for grandkids, and no dad to sit on his lap. It’s not easy.”
Hearing remarks of how that day has helped to make mining safer for others, Reid said she is hopeful that fewer children have to suffer the same loss.
“I wouldn’t want them to go through what we went through,” she said. “I mean, we had a good life, but even today, it hurts.”
One year shy of 50 years since her father’s untimely death, Reid takes comfort in seeing the turnout of miners, families and friends who come to honor him and the other 77 each year.
“We come every year because we owe him that much,” she said.
While every ceremony has been touching, Caputo said next year will be extra special for the 50th.
“I have watched this grow over the years, and look at the elements we have today. I’ve seen inches of snow here, wind howling up and down this holler and people still come. It’s that important, and we’re going to really do something special for the 50th,” he said. “We’re in the planning stages of that right now. It’ll be half a century. Think about that.”