MONONGAH, W.Va. — While described as the worst mining disaster in America, the Monongah Mine Disaster went a century without remembrances and commemoration.
But now, a group of individuals is making sure that the tragedy remains alive in Marion County.
“I look back 100 years to when all these people came from all over the world to make a better life for themselves and their children, and they ended up dying,” said Assunta “Susie” Leonardis, a UNICO member who organized the commemoration. “This was not the only explosion. We have hundreds in the United States, and they were all forgotten. I want to bring this story to life.”
At least 361 miners lost their lives on Dec. 6, 1907, when a massive explosion ripped through the Fairmont Coal Company’s No. 6 and 8 mines, devastating the community of Monongah.
“We knew it happened, but it wasn’t discussed,” Monongah native Dave Fazio said. “I don’t know why. I can’t tell you that. We just didn’t discuss it much. It just wasn’t talked about.”
Fazio’s wife, Cora, became involved with commemorating the day on the centennial in 2007, after being approached by the Italian government and the Catholic Church.
“My husband and I took care of the cemetery because it had been left to ruins. People had ignored it. It’s an old cemetery,” Cora Fazio said. “We had our son buried there, and it became a concern to me.”
While visiting the cemetery, Fazio said she was shocked at how many victims of the mine explosion were buried without having markers for their names.
“Depending on how poor the Italians were, they had wooden markers or they just had none,” she said. “The Polish Church, which always amazed us, there’s a lot of Polish headstones, but it was different for the Italians.”
Leonardis admits that she, too, was surprised to learn of the working conditions of not only the Monongah miners but all Italian immigrants throughout the United States.
“I thought America was Hollywood and Elvis Presley,” she said. “I had a good job. I thought everything was like the privilege that I got, but it wasn’t.”
Soon after becoming involved, Fazio began to hear stories from descendants of those who died that fateful day.
“We started hearing stories from families in the area of how many died and how many women lost their husbands,” she said. “You never think of them, you think of the men that died.”
Fazio said one story that particularly touched her was a doctor whose grandmother relocated herself and her eight children to Ohio after the explosion.
“Her husband died and her son died, and she had nothing,” she said. “She left and moved to Columbus so that her family would help her, and a lot of the mothers did that.”
Many of those children went on to become doctors, lawyers and other successful occupations, which Fazio said is an important part of the story.
“That’s what we need to know is who came from those men that died,” she said. “They’re gone. Those branches from that tree have fallen, but who came from that. That’s the important thing.”
Fazio vividly remembers the centennial celebration that she helped to begin for the town of Monongah.
“At the 100th ceremony, we had three bus loads of people that were from Italy come from Canada. That’s a story to remember,” she said. “We had a blizzard that year and yet there were over 300 people at that ceremony.”
Before plans for the bicentennial celebration came together, Leonardis learned the story of Monongah’s mine disaster from a surgeon at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield, New Jersey, where she worked as an operating room nurse.
“He put me in touch with his cousin, and from his cousin to other people,” she said. “Then it took me 39 years to reach the centennial, but it turned out to be a beautiful ceremony.”
Once again this year, visitors traveled from near and far to attend the 110th commemoration, with Fazio driving in from New Jersey to make the day’s event.
“It took me eight hours to get here, but I am very proud that I did,” she said.
As a native of Monongah, Fazio said it means a lot to see the town come together to remember the event and the sacrifices those men made.
“I’m happy that the town is keeping this alive,” she said. “It’s important for everybody to know — our whole country.”
Leonardis added: “The story doesn’t have to die. We have to continue the goal.”