By Jeff Deal
Ninety-nine Americans were working in the No. 9 coal mine just north of Farmington, W.Va., on the morning of Nov. 20, 1968 — but only 21 would return safely to loved ones and the light of day. And of the 78 individuals that died from the coal mine explosion, or by suffocation from the toxic levels of gases present afterwards, 19 would remain forever buried in the mine.
Bonnie Stewart’s Book, No.9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster, is a marvel of cogent narrative. The technical subject matter concerning coal mining techniques and the investigations of state and federal agencies into the deaths of 78 people is clear and easy to follow. The reader is free to explore, sometimes in near disbelief, how Consolidation Coal Company recklessly pursued profit by knowingly disregarding safety standards and labor laws and eventually perverted the justice system of the United States in an effort to maximize profits at the expense of the Americans whose labor originally created the company’s earnings.
The book generously details the lead-up, disaster and aftermath of the tragedy. Stewart carefully exhibits the lax and sometimes irresponsible safety record of the West Virginia mine, right up to the last safety violations the mine received — just 24 days before the deadly explosion. These violations included unsafe roof areas, poorly maintained equipment capable of triggering explosions, airways that weren’t properly supervised and dangerously exposed electrical wires. Stewart conveys testimony by employees and survivors describing how miners who reported safety issues were “rewarded” with the most arduous and hazardous duties the mine had to offer.
The contemptible treatment of the miners’ families and loved ones by the coal industry and their all-too-powerful legal and political machine, skillfully related by the author, was painful to read. Governor Arch Moore, (later found guilty of corruption) assured the public that the disaster was a freak accident, something the workers in the mine and later investigators knew to be patently false. Some employees of the mine were instructed by Consolidation Coal not to cooperate in the state and federal investigations seeking to determine the cause of the initial explosion. The retrieval of the victims bodies took years; 19 miners were never recovered.
After reading Stewart’s revealing account of the tragedy, one realizes that if the disaster had resulted from the careless actions by one or more ordinary citizens, it’s unlikely the persons could have escaped a conviction of second or third degree murder. It is more upsetting still to see a coal company virtually pardoned for the deaths of 78 Americans through legal maneuverings and political contributions paid for by the earnest labor of the victims. Would not this money have been better spent correcting the safety deficiencies within the mine that were known to Consolidation Coal?
The book’s most heart-rending revelation: Nearly all, if not all, coal mine disasters and fatalities are preventable when human safety and well-being is placed before coal production and profits.