MELISA BLOCK, host:
Crandall Canyon in Utah, Sago Mine in West Virginia - deadly disasters in those mines made them, at least briefly, household names. Before those recent collapses, there was Farmington in West Virginia. In 1968, a serious of explosions there killed 78 miners. Federal investigators said they couldn't determine the cause. Now, 40 years later, a memo has surfaced that puts the blame on the mining company. Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting has our story.
SCOTT FINN: Two hours before dawn on November 20, 1968, explosions and fire rocketed through a coalmine near Farmington, West Virginia.
(Soundbite of 1968 press conference)
Mr. WILLIAM POUNDSTONE (Executive Vice President, Consol Energy): Our best estimate is that at least 70 miners are still trapped inside the mine.
FINN: That's William Poundstone, spokesman for the mine. It was the first major mine disaster to be nationally televised. Americans watched for days as anguished relatives, such as Betty Friend, held vigil at the coal company store.
(Soundbite of 1968 interview)
Ms. BETTY FRIEND: Our family has great hopes that maybe God will be with us and with the other families, and bring all these men out.
(Soundbite of Betty Friend sobbing)
FINN: On the 10th day, company officials sealed the mine with the bodies of 78 men still inside. The families gathered at a church to hear the news, including Jim Matish, who was 15 at the time.
Mr. JIM MATISH: There was never such wailing and crying and screaming. It's just hard to imagine.
FINN: Just days before the explosion, Matish overheard his father, Frank, telling his mother he wanted to quit the mine.
Mr. MATISH: He told us that the mine was in the worst shape that he had ever seen. I can remember hearing her tell him, well, why don't you just call, why don't you just quit and not go? He said, well, we've got a son that we need to worry about educating.
FINN: Mine foreman Pete Sehewchuk worked with Frank Matish in the mine. He says safety sometimes took a backseat to production.
Mr. PETE SEHEWCHUK (Former Mine Foreman, Farmington): I told my wife at that time, I said that mine is going to blow up. There was a lot of shady things going on back there.
FINN: After the Farmington disaster, company officials reopened the mine to recover the bodies. An electrician tried to restart a large ventilation fan and noticed the fan's safety alarm had been disabled. This was the very same fan that had stopped working shortly before the explosion. An alarm should have sounded, telling the miners to evacuate. Instead they died. A federal investigator sent a memo about the sabotaged alarm to top officials at the U.S. Bureau of Mines. One official ordered the memo to be filed away.
Professor BONNIE STEWART (Journalism, West Virginia University): When I saw that memo, I had to sit down. It explained so much about why those men died and what had happened at that mine. It just floored me.
FINN: Bonnie Stewart is a journalism professor at West Virginia University. She was researching a book about Farmington when she found the hidden memo.
Professor STEWART: Had the widows known about this memo at the time, they could have taken stronger action against the company through a more powerful lawsuit than what they filed.
FINN: Most of the widows reached a $10,000 settlement with Consol Energy. Stewart says we may never know why the memo was buried. She hasn't been able to find the memo's author, Larry Lane. And many of the officials involved at the time are dead. The federal government finally issued a report on Farmington more than 20 years later. The 1990 report makes no mention of the memo or that someone deliberately disabled the alarm. Jim Matish, who's now a West Virginia judge, says someone should have been held responsible.
Mr. MATISH: In my opinion, it amounted to a criminal act.
FINN: Officials with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and with Consol Energy declined to comment for this story. They said the mine disaster was a part of history. But the people of Farmington still remember. Matish has trouble talking about the last time he told his father goodbye.
Mr. MATISH: So long, Dad. Don't work too hard, and be careful.
FINN: After Farmington, Congress passed landmark mine safety legislation. For the first time, the federal government could fine mining companies for safety violations and even bring criminal charges against the worst offenders. Before Farmington, about 250 coal miners died every year in the United States. Today, that's down to about 32. For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Charleston, West Virginia.