The West Virginia mine disaster that changed everything

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Shortly before dawn on November 20, 1968, an explosion ripped through the community of Farmington, West Virginia, with aftershocks being felt as far south as Fairmont, roughly 12 miles away.

At the epicenter of the underground explosion was the Consol No. 9 coal mine – where 99 miners were beneath the earth’s surface working. Miners living in the area heard the noise and – knowing what it meant – headed to the mine, where they discovered a rapidly spreading fire with flames shooting 150 feet into the air.

Over the course of the next few hours, 21 miners were able to escape the mine, but 78 remained trapped.

The fires continued to burn for over a week, and on November 29, rescuers finally admitted defeat after air samples from drill holes showed air unable to sustain human life. The mine was sealed on November 30 with concrete to starve the fire of oxygen.

In September 1969, the mine was unsealed in an attempt to recover the miners’ bodies. Progress was slow because workers discovered cave-ins that they had to tunnel around. This recovery effort continued for almost ten years. By April 1978, 59 of the 78 bodies had been recovered. Unable to recover the other 19, workers permanently sealed the mine.

The actual cause of the blast and fire was never determined. However, several contributing factors were found that may have caused the blast included: inadequate ventilation, inadequate control of explosive methane gas and coal dust, and inadequate testing for methane.

The Farmington disaster was a catalyst for the passage of major changes in the nation’s mining safety laws. One month after the Farmington disaster the U.S. Department of the Interior held a conference on mine safety. Stewart Udall’s opening speech specifically referenced Farmington and concluded, “let me assure you, the people of this country no longer will accept the disgraceful health and safety record that has characterized this major industry.”

As a result of the Farmington disaster, the United States Congress passed the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act which strengthened safety standards, increased Federal mine inspections, and gave coal miners specific safety and health rights.

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