ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Fifty years ago this week, 78 men were killed when a coal mine exploded in West Virginia. The Farmington Mine disaster devastated a small town and ushered in new health and safety laws nationwide. As part of our series on landmark events from 1968, Molly Born of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.
MOLLY BORN, BYLINE: George Butt was in the first grade in November 1968 when his father put in his two weeks' notice at the No. 9 mine. Harold Wayne Butt had worked as a coal miner but planned to switch careers to become a postmaster.
GEORGE BUTT: And they came and got me out of class and told me I had to go home and ended up finding out the tragedy when I got there.
BORN: George Butt and his family attended a memorial service this week. They were honoring those who died when a series of explosions stemming from a buildup of methane gas tore through the coal mine 50 years ago.
BUTT: There's not a day that goes by - sorry - yeah, it's tough. November is a very hard month.
BORN: Harold Butt was 42 years old when he died. Of the 99 miners underground that day, only 21 were able to escape. Bonnie Stewart is a journalist and a college professor who wrote a book about the disaster. She says it drew national attention.
BONNIE STEWART: It was on the nightly news. People across the world could see what had happened and what a tragedy like that looked like.
BORN: After the disaster, 40,000 West Virginia coal miners staged a wildcat strike to demand better health benefits and raise awareness about black lung disease. And in Washington, widows of the late miners testified before Congress, which ultimately passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.
STEWART: It was the beginning of a real federal oversight for the health and safety of the people who go underground.
BORN: Under the new law, mines were subject to more federal inspections, fines for safety violations and criminal penalties for the most egregious violations. Miners disabled by black lung could receive benefits. Davitt McAteer is a mine safety expert who grew up in a nearby town.
DAVITT MCATEER: It was pivotal for this industry and for the health and safety movement around the country. You saw other industries copy what the mine industry was doing in terms of education, in terms of research, in terms of regulations.
JOE MANCHIN: And that must be our commitment to never forget. I love you all. I'm so thankful to be here.
BORN: In Farmington, hundreds attended this year's memorial service earlier this week, including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who grew up there. He lost an uncle in the mine disaster, one of many in the state's history.
MANCHIN: It's awful when you have so many tragedies that have to happen before necessary changes are made. But the miners have paid. They've paid with their sweat and their blood.
BORN: Nonetheless, George Butt says he's still bitter. His family and others are suing the mine company all these years later. Murray Energy now owns Consolidation Coal. The company's attorneys have argued the Farmington families should have filed the lawsuit within two years of the disaster. But it wasn't until 2014 that they uncovered new evidence. They say the mine's head electrician turned off an alarm on a fan used to rid the mine of deadly methane gas. If the alarm had sounded, power to the mine would have shut off. Tim Bailey is an attorney for the families.
TIM BAILEY: It's the information that a member of management was involved that gave the information necessary to file the suit. And we filed the suit within two years of learning that information.
BORN: A judge threw out the lawsuit last year. The families have appealed. For NPR News, I'm Molly Born in Mannington, W.Va.
(SOUNDBITE OF MBO MENTHO'S "SEA MIST")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.