It was on a damp, cold morning on November 20, 1968, when a gas and dust explosion occurred in Consolidation Coal Company’s No. 9 mine in the great Pittsburgh coal seam near Farmington and Mannington in West Virginia. There had been deadly explosions in the mine in 1901 and 1954, but this was far worse. A large cloud of black smoke and red flames spewed from the pit opening, and rock and debris were catapulted from the mine.
Twenty-one miners managed to scramble to safety, but another 78 men were not as fortunate. Attempts at rescue were delayed until the fires could be extinguished. For days afterward rescuers from across the coalfields worked amidst the debris, some of it dangerously unstable, looking to find and dig out survivors. Finally, after nine days, the mine was ordered sealed, a step that had been delayed out of consideration of the relatives of men inside. The mine was reopened a year later and most of the bodies removed, although 19 corpses were never recovered.
The legal and political consequences were profound. Shocked by the Farmington carnage, a mine safety conference was convened in Washington to discuss working conditions in the nation’s coal mines. As a result of the disaster, national attention was brought to the issue of mine safety in late 1968 and early 1969. Congress and the Nixon administration responded with the passage of the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. The federal law enacted strict prohibitions against miners working under unsupported roof, imposed tougher ventilation provisions, and gave federal mine inspectors the power to close any unsafe coal operation. The disaster also contributed to the eventual unseating of the corrupt United Mine Workers president Tony Boyle, who angered many by defending Consolidation Coal after the explosion.
This Article was written by Jeffrey B. Cook
Last Revised on July 20, 2012
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West Virginia: Documents in the History of a Rural- Industrial State. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Pub., 1991.