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On the Farmington Mine Disaster: ‘You knew nobody could have survived it’

FARMINGTON, W.Va. — A son of one of the 78 coal miners who died at Consolidation Coal’s Farmington No. 9 Mine in Marion County in 1968 said, on that morning of Nov. 20, he was six years old and really wanted to believe his dad, Harold Butt, would be okay.

“With all of the smoke and fire that was coming out of both portals, you knew nobody could have survived it,” recalled George Butt, who now works in Roane County, on Wednesday which was the 45th Anniversary of the Farmington Mine Disaster.

The first powerful blast happened at 5:30 a.m. and lead to several more explosions and fires that hampered rescue efforts at the mine.  Although 21 miners were able to escape, the 78 miners who were trapped in the initial explosion died.

The disaster lead to the passage of the federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 which standardized coal mine health and safety practices.

The comprehensive legislation dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in coal mines, set monetary penalties for violations and established criminal punishments for knowing and willful violations.  Safety standards for coal mines were strengthened and health standards were adopted in it.

Bonnie Stewart, the author of “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster,” said that federal law is the legacy of the miners who were killed.

“(Now) There is some expectation that, if you screw up that badly, someone is going to pay.  Someone is going to have to answer for it and, in No. 9, no one answered for it,” said Stewart.  “No one was held responsible.  Consolidation Coal got off scot-free.”

The fires that followed the first explosion on Nov. 20 — a blast that was so powerful it could be felt a dozen miles away in Fairmont — burned for more than a week until the mine was sealed off on Nov. 30, 1968 in an attempt to starve the fires of oxygen.  The mine was unsealed the following September so the bodies of the victims could be recovered.

Years would pass before the body of Butt’s father was recovered, though.  George Butt said late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) called his family’s home on his 13th birthday.  “We were actually having a birthday celebration and the phone rang and it was Senator Byrd and he was just letting us know that they had found my father,” said Butt.

The recovery efforts continued for almost a decade until the mine was permanently sealed on Nov. 1, 1978 with the remains of 19 miners still missing.

The ignition source of the Farmington No. 9 Mine Disaster was never determined because of the extensive damage to the mine, but federal and state investigators said contributing factors were inadequate methane testing and ventilation along with the presence of high levels of methane gas and coal dust.

“If you’ve worked in the mines your whole life, like I have, you look at those 78 men as heroes,” said Mike Caputo, UMWA District 31 international vice president and Marion County delegate, on Wednesday’s “Morning News.”

He was eleven years old when the explosion happened and helped his mother take food to the widows who were waiting on information near the mine site in Farmington.

“I was just a little kid and I was in the back seat of my dad’s ’63 Ford and we were heading up that hollow and I can remember, like it was yesterday, seeing the smoke billowing out of that shaft,” said Caputo.  “It was horrific, just absolutely horrifying and, I was young, but I certainly understood that there wasn’t much hope for those miners that were left in that coal mine.”

More than four decades after the explosion, Butt said there are many people who are still feeling its effects.  “The 20th of November is a very hard day,” he said.

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