A Look Back at the Farmington Mine Disaster
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The town of Farmington, West Virginia, near the Pennsylvania border, has never forgotten the coal mine disaster there in 1968. At 5:30 in the morning on November 20th, a huge explosion tore through Consolidation Coal's Number Nine mine. The force of the blast could be felt for miles. There would be dozens of other explosions in the days to come and intense fires. Ninety-nine miners were underground at the time; 21 managed to make it to the surface, the other 78 all died. Nineteen bodies were never recovered. James Yost was a young miner working above ground at the Number Nine mine that day. We talked today about the disaster and the decision to seal the mine 10 days after the explosion to put out the fires.
Mr. JAMES YOST (Former Coal Miner): My father was also an employee at that mine, and he helped seal the shafts and the slopes and stuff, which they sealed with concrete.
BLOCK: They sealed it up so that the fires wouldn't spread?
Mr. YOST: Exactly, yes. Uh-huh.
BLOCK: That must have been a really devastating thing for people whose loved ones were still underground.
Mr. YOST: It was--a traumatic experience. And I'm not sure if you're familiar with the memorial that was built not far from the site of the explosion, which they have a yearly or annual dedication to that memorial. And it's still--even after 30-something years, it's still emotion, you know. We had friends--I knew a lot of the guys. Some of them were classmates. Some I went to school with. Some of them were friends of mine and uncles. And our governor's uncle was one of the people that was in the mine, which we all knew.
BLOCK: As I understand it, they sealed up the mine temporarily, but then, a year or so later, reopened up and were recovering bodies for 10 years.
Mr. YOST: They recovered some for a while. But to get to the ones that were in the heart of the explosion in all probability wasn't feasible to jeopardize men's lives to get to them.
BLOCK: And they were left underground.
Mr. YOST: Yes, ma'am.
BLOCK: What was going on in the community while all this was taking place, days of attempted rescues and these fires raging underground? Did everyone come together?
Mr. YOST: Yes, yes. Everything was together--I remember the Red Cross being staged there with coffee and stuff for the workers or anybody even practically that had anything to do with surveillance or watching that the mines wasn't--we had a lot of problems with the media trying to disguise theirselves as coal miners to get on site.
Mr. YOST: You know, it was a situation where your whole town and whole community--the air was almost scary, like a war zone or something.
BLOCK: You could see the smoke?
Mr. YOST: Yes, ma'am. You could--as a matter of fact, you could feel the heat from the fire burning.
BLOCK: How do you think an experience like this, such a huge trauma in a small town, how does it mark the town even this long after the fact?
Mr. YOST: Well, anywhere you go, most people that you talk to has heard of the Number Nine disaster. To have that many people killed at one time is a traumatic experience.
BLOCK: You mentioned the memorial that's held every year. Do you feel the impact of what happened back in 1968 throughout the year? Are there other times when it comes back to you?
Mr. YOST: Definitely, yeah. I personally am 61 years old, but you think back, that that was when my beginning a family was starting. I had two daughters, a year and two years old. We struggled for employment for a while; it was a hard thing that way.
Mr. YOST: And it was during the holiday season. The whole area was kind of in a state of mind of, `Are they going to find any more alive, or are they going to seal the mines?' And I can remember the big controversy. There was really not a fix for the situation at the time, and there isn't now. And a lot of the laws made for mining was enacted because of what happened at that mine.
BLOCK: I've read that there were widows of some of the miners who were killed who went to testify before Congress, and that's what ultimately led to, in 1969, the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act.
Mr. YOST: You're exactly--You're exactly right, you know. And it's something that they did enact laws that makes coal mining a safer job now than it used to be, and I'm thankful for that.
BLOCK: Mr. Yost, thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. YOST: You're quite welcome.
BLOCK: James Yost is a retired coal miner in Farmington, West Virginia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.