UMWA leader reflects on strides in mine safety as 50th anniversary of Farmington disaster nears

FARMINGTON, W.Va. — Even 50 years later, the 78 miners lost in Farmington have not been forgotten.

“Those men that lost their lives in the #9 mine — 78 of them and 19 of which are still entombed in that mine — sacrificed and gave everything so coal miners today could have a safe place to work,” said Mike Caputo, vice president of the United Mine Workers of America International District 31.

UMWA District 31 will hold its annual memorial Sunday to honor the 78 miners who perished in the Farmington #9 mine disaster, and Caputo said he’s expecting many to attend.

“I think it’s appreciated by the family members that were left behind because you’ve got to remember that those ones that are still entombed there, that is their final resting place,” he said. “Their families never got to have closure with a funeral service like others have.”

Like many memorials, the commemoration at the Farmington #9 memorial is somber and full of sadness, but Caputo said he also sees the day as a celebration of life.

“It was because of that tragedy and the family members that were left behind that the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was enacted, which literally saved thousands and thousands of lives,” he said. “It was the first time that there were real enforcement powers by the agencies and absolutely stringent safety laws in this industry. It was the first time ever, quite frankly, that the lives of miners were put before the profits of coal barons, and we owe those miners and their families an absolute debt of gratitude.”

Even after 49 previous ceremonies, it’s a day that the UMWA District 31 members look forward to each year.

“It is sad at times, it is happy at times but at the end of the day, it is something that the United Mine Workers of America will always continue doing in honor of those 78 miners,” Caputo said. “It’s something that absolutely has to be done because I truly believe if you do not remember your past, you are likely to go back to your past.”

Looking back, Caputo is awed at the advancements that have been made in terms of miner safety since that tragedy 50 years ago.

“If you look back at the deaths before 1968 versus the coal mining fatalities after 1968, literally tens of thousands of miners lives have been saved because of that act, and we can’t forget how that happened,” he said. “When those folks lost their lives in Farmington, the widows of those men, the family members of those men, they didn’t want any other family to go what they had just went through.”

The widows, the children, the parents and other loved ones of those 78 victims “turned their pain into power,” Caputo said.

Sarah Kaznoski, the now late wife of Pete Kaznoski Sr., a buggy helper who perished in the disaster and remains forever entombed in the Farmington #9 mine, led a march on Washington to demand legislation.

“They demanded that Congress make coal mines a safe place to work, and they weren’t leaving Capitol Hill until they got what they wanted and we owe them a debt of gratitude,” Caputo said.

And the product that followed — the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 — has made significant impact on mining safety throughout the country.

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 during last year’s ceremony.

“Until that Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 happened, there were no safety provisions in the mine. There were no enforcement powers by the federal government,” Caputo said. “The CMHSA was created to protect the coal miners and force the coal operators to provide us with a safe place to work. That is their job, and we have to make sure — regardless of what administration is in power in Washington — that they continue to do their job, and that is making sure that every coal miner in this country has a reasonable expectation to go home safely at the end of his or her shift.”

But Farmington wasn’t the worst as far as total fatalities went. Rather, what made the Farmington disaster different was the media coverage, Caputo said.

“The media was there, satellite imagery was being shown all over the world of what was happening in Farmington, West Virginia, and people saw that everywhere and they said, ‘My goodness, coal miners should never have to worry about things like that. This is horrible,'” he said. “So I give the media a lot of credit for the chain of events that transpired after Farmington because there were many tragedies in this industry and lots of disasters, but usually that pain just stayed in the community.”

Typically, the news of a mining disaster never left the community where it happened, and the townspeople were forced to get on with their lives, Caputo said.

“A lot of people just didn’t know what happened, but in 1968 that all changed,” he said. “The world seen it, and we were able to turn that pain into power and save thousands of lives.”

But, Caputo cautioned, there’s still more to accomplish.

“There’s still a lot of miners dying from the dreaded black lung disease,” Caputo said. “We’ve got to do all we can to reduce dust exposure in this industry, and we have to stay forever vigilant to make sure that coal operators do not go to legislators or to Congress to try to roll back coal mine health and safety. It’s a constant fight that I don’t think will ever end in this country. I really don’t.”

Caputo said there are still coal operators today that aim to roll back the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act provisions in hopes to increase their bottom line.

“They still want to put profits ahead of people in some instances,” he said. “That is why we have to stay ever viligant in this industry and make sure that we fight for every safety law that we can have. I’m a firm believer that every law ever written in this industry was written in this industry was written in blood. Somebody either got mained, hurt or killed for that law, and we should honor that.”

Attendees are asked to park at Miller’s Hardware and First Exchange Bank in Mannington to be bused to the memorial site.

The memorial begins at 1 p.m. UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts will be the keynote speaker.

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