Mine disaster was reporter's first major story

West Virginia mine explosion killed 78 back in '68

by Dick Farley, Washington Correspondent

The morning of November 20, 1968, I had just gotten into bed after an all-night stint at a Morgantown, West Virginia radio station, where I was a "re-write" man, editing copy and gathering news from midnight to 6 a.m. The phone rang just as I turned off the light.

My news director asked me if I could go to the site of a reported mine explosion, about thirty miles away. That was all he knew, having picked the emergency call off his police radio scanner.

An hour later, I rolled up in my Volkswagen to the Mountaineer No. 9 Mine, owned by Consolidation Coal Co. (Consol), not far out of Farmington, WV. There was nobody in sight but a West Virginia State Trooper, whom I knew vaguely from covering car wrecks and other incidents about which I scoured police reports when on the "cops" beat.

Smoke rose high into the overcast sky from the mine. A few parked fire trucks and ambulances littered the grounds, some with their emergency lights slowly turning, but with no fire fighters or emergency personnel anywhere to be seen. It was deathly still.

I was the first "news person" on the scene, and it would be a chilling, heart rending and eye-opening experience for me for the next ten days, until officials abandoned all hope for the 78 men who were first trapped, then entombed in Mountaineer No. 9 Mine.

Now that I am living again part-time in West Virginia, while obtaining services for my adult multi-handicapped son, the ongoing mine disaster at Montcoal, WV, where a Massey mine is still defying efforts to bring its explosive conditions under control so the bodies of the 25 miners it has already killed can be recovered, serves as a grim reminder of the heroics it takes to keep the lights on in most of our nation, where about half of our electricity fuel is coal. Cape Wind and other renewables won't change that any time soon.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was also at Farmington when I was there. We were both just 21, as we recalled last summer when we had an opportunity to reminisce. He had an uncle and four high-school buddies trapped in Mountaineer No. 9, entombed when the mine was sealed after all hope of rescue was lost.

When you see Joe Manchin on television comforting the familes or telling it like it is to the news media, you can be assured he has "been there, done that." Joe is the real deal!

In this column over the next few days, where we've in the past few years looked at some of the shenanigans and developments attendant to the Cape Wind controversy and the endless hold-ups, obstacles and bogus "Indian attacks," we will look at what in reality is keeping the lights on in Washington, DC, where more than half of the power is from coal, some of it from the West Virginia coal fields, where another tragic drama is playing out.

When I was at Mountaineer No. 9 back in '68, my radio station was an NBC affiliate, so I did some "advance" work for a network TV news team which eventually made their way to Farmington. Jack Perkins was then and later a genuine news professional, and I got to work a bit with him.

Here is one of Jack's feature pieces, via You Tube, as seen on the old Huntley-Brinkley nightly news program, the day officials announced they were going to seal "No. 9."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j16nXFwkVvk

There have been many, many improvements to mine safety technology and procedures, better regulations and working conditions, clean-ups of once corrupt unions and tighter regulation of mining companies and the underground environment. It's still dangerous.

And whether it's the men and women who dig your coal, bring it by train and river boat to power stations, work the generation plants, or even change the flashing red lights on top of 1,000-ft. high stacks, the heroic people with their names on their shirts are rarely seen or heard from, until something goes wrong and some of them have to pay the true price of coal.

You can be sure that, in most cases, when the disaster is passed, they will return to the mine. It's a good life, well-paying nowaday, unless "something happens." Like it is now.

CapeCodToday.com welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on CapeCodToday.com.