HOLDEN, W.Va. — Monday marked the 61st anniversary of a dark day in West Virginia’s coal mining history.
March 8, 1960 during the first hours of the day shift at the Holden 22 Mine on the Logan-Mingo County border a fire broke out and trapped 20 men underground. Two of those men managed to make their way to safety through a narrow ventilation shaft, the other 18 died underground of carbon monoxide asphyxiation.
Isom Ooten was 10 years old and remembers the day he lost his dad very well.
“They came and got us out of school. My sister, my younger brother, and I had to go home. They told us we had an emergency. It was when we got home my mom told me what happened,” he explained.
Ooten recalled bits and pieces of the drama, particularly the constant coverage on the radio.
“They were two weeks getting them out,” he remembered. “We have the radio tuned to WLOG in Logan 24 hours a day. It seemed like they spent a lot of time on the radio broadcasting about it. They were live talking about it,”
The tragedy left 16 women widows and 72 children fatherless. Six of those children were Ooten and his siblings.
“My mom did a good job. She raised six kids on her own. None of them were on drugs or in jail I give her a lot of credit she done a good job,” he explained.
Ooten and his family lived at Lenore and not in the company houses at Holden 22. Island Creek Coal Company paid for his dad’s funeral and set up a scholarship fund for the children of the miners to go to college. Ooten used the fund to pay for one semester of his schooling when he returned from the Service. However, unlike today, the widows were intimidated against seeking any compensation for their husbands’ deaths from the company.
“My mom told me the coal companies threatened if they tried to sue the coal company, they’d see to it they wouldn’t get any help to raise the kids. They told them they would lose their Social Security and everything. You have to understand in 1960, the coal companies owned Logan County. When you’re a mother and you’ve got six kids to raise, you’re going to think about that,” he said.
Ooten helped spearhead a project to build a memorial to the 18 men killed that day, including his dad. It sits at the top of 22 Mountain at the Mingo-Logan County border today with a monument featuring the names of each man killed, a picnic shelter, and a story board which tells the history of the mine and the disaster.