78 Miners Entombed in Farmington No. 9 After Blasts Rip Workings; 21 Escape Underground
Holocaust; Fire Growing in Intensity, Keeps Rescue Teams on Surface
Little Hope Held For Men Trapped In Flaming Mine
November 21, 1968
78 Miners Entombed in Farmington No. 9 After Blasts Rip Workings; 21 Escape Underground Holocaust; Fire Growing in Intensity, Keeps Rescue Teams on Surface
Little Hope Held For Men Trapped In Flaming Mine
Seventy-eight miners were entombed by an explosion early yesterday morning in Farmington No. 9 mine of Mountaineer Coal Co. and hope for their lives all but vanished last night when raging fires prevented the start of rescue operations.
Rolling smoke, lightened by flames that last night shot 150 feet into the air, poured from the Llewellyn Run and Mod's Run portals of the ill-fated mine, while noxious gases filled the workings and threatened to add to the four explosions which rocked the mine starting at 5:25 a.m. and continued until 10 p.m.
Twenty-one of the 99 men who went to work on the "cateye shift" at midnight Tuesday made their way to safety. Five were undergoing hospital treatment for smoke inhalation and injuries caused by concussion.
No communication has been established between the rescue command posts on the surface and the men underground. Six production crews of six men each were known to have been working on sections between the Llewellyn and Mod's Run portals, and they were given scant chance of surviving the explosive forces which wrecked both facilities.
Not until nearly 10 p.m. was a list of the entombed miners made available by coal company officials. Personnel records were kept in the office at the Llewellyn portal and could not be reached because of the fire, smoke and wreckage at the facility, four miles west of Mannington, which was opened less than two years ago. Other records in Mountaineer headquarters were searched during the day, and a personal check on each miner carried on the rolls of the midnight shift was made.
Gov. Hulett C. Smith headed a host of top-level visitors to the stricken community. Also on hand were executives of Consolidation Coal Co., Mountaineer's parent firm, and ranking officials of the West Virginia Department of Mines, the U. S. Bureau of Mines, and the United Mine Workers of America.
The explosion was the third in the history of Farmington No. 9. On Nov. 13, 1954, a Saturday maintenance force of 16 men were killed. Four more lost their lives in a shaft explosion when the Llewellyn portal was under construction April 30, 1965. The disaster followed by nine days the destruction of Manchin's, Farmington's principal business complex in a million-dollar fire which claimed four lives.
While planning was continued throughout the night, no attempt to begin rescue operations was likely until sometime today, if then. Officials said it will be necessary to wait until the fire which apparently has covered the mine between the Llewellyn and Mod's Run portals, at least two miles apart, "calms down."
William Poundstone, Consol's executive vice president for operations, told a late afternoon press briefing that "rescue operations were still impossible because of the density of the fire. We expect no further developments until the flames die down."
He said that although "we have available the best and most skilled mine rescue teams in the business," no attempt would be made to send them underground because of the fire. Seven teams - three from Federal No. 1 mine of Eastern Associated Coal Corp. at Grant Town, and one each from Mountaineer's Loveridge, Williams, Robinson Run and Jordan mines - arrived on the scene before 9 a.m. They remained on stand by throughout the day. Additional crews will be available when a rotating shift system is established for a recovery operation that may require days of hazardous effort.
Poundstone, while conceding "we have no way of knowing whether any of those in the mine are alive" since communications were totally disrupted by the explosion, refused to abandon hope . "Some could have barricaded themselves," he pointed out, although experienced miners said the force evidenced in the area where most of the men were believed to have been working would probably have deprived the trapped men of a chance to flee the zone in which the greatest violence occurred.
The Consol executive, without going into detail, said "some changes in ventilation" had been made in an effort to "calm" the fire. It was understood this consisted of sealing the return air side of the Mod's Run shaft, where the fan was blown out by a second explosion some 15 minutes after the original ignition.
Fresh air is going into the mine through the Mahan's Run shaft. This flow may be carrying oxygen into the fire area, officials are unwilling to shut down all fans while there is a chance that the trapped miners are alive, and two are circulating air into the workings.
Poundstone said there can be no determination of the point of ignition or the cause of the explosion until the recovery work has been completed and the mine has been minutely inspected. Earlier he had expressed the belief that methane was "involved" as he described the mine as "moderately gassy." He said the workings were heavily rock-dusted, which may account for the lack of fire and violence at the "front" of the mine from which the 21 men escaped safely. The fire zone, in which the explosion apparently occurred, covers about three square miles, although fire does not necessarily cover the entire area. The mine itself is some eight miles from one end to the other. Gov. Smith joined Poundstone, Consol President John Corcoran, President Cecil J. Urbaniak of District 31, United Mine Workers of America, Lewis Evans, safety director for the UMWA, and Director Elmer C. Workman of the U. S. Bureau of Mines at the briefing session.
"I would like to explain that this is an accident," the governor said. "I have confidence that the mining industry is seeing the most improved safety measures are being taken. We have experienced tragedy here many times before. Mining is a hazardous profession.
"I have received an offer of assistance from Gov. Price Daniels, head of the Office of Emergency Preparation in the executive office of the President, and have advised him that the company, federal and state mines departments and the union appear to be doing everything they can at the present time.
"First we are going to try to rescue the trapped men and then, if necessary, offer assistance to their families. The cooperation here has been wonderful and we have received many offers of help from every part of the country."
While the first company report on the explosion placed the time at 5:40 a.m., many believed it was 15 minutes earlier. Several Farmington residents, among them Oral Huff, a retired miner, as well as others residing in Fairmont, Barrackville and other places several miles from the mine, placed the hour they felt the concussion or heard the rumble of the underground blast at 5:25 a.m. The first evidence of the explosion came when a pillar of flame rose through the 576 foot deep Llewellyn Run shaft, blowing the cage through the roof of the head house and ripping siding off the walls of the portal building. Almost immediately dense clouds of thick black smoke arose, continuing unabated throughout the day and night.
Some of the debris was thrown against cars of miners working the cateye shift which were parked near the portal. The automobiles, soot covered and at times completely obscured by smoke, remained in the parking lot last night, mute evidence of their missing owners. The concussion was felt as far away as "A Face," on the eastern end of the mine, where a production crew of seven men was working. They walked about a mile and a half to the slope up which coal is hauled by belt to the preparation plant and came up the long incline to safety. Two mechanics working in a motor barn near the Atha's Run portal rode its elevator to the surface, some two miles away from the slope, while four other men nearer the slope also reached it and came out unharmed.
Meanwhile eight men who were on a section in the vicinity of the Mahan's Run shaft, now under construction, managed to reach the bottom and after finally attracting the attention omen on the surface awaited rescue. A crane was moved into place and the men were hauled up in a bucket. As they emerged, they were examined by Dr. Murray B. Hunter of the Fairmont Clinic, who headed a staff of several persons that sped to the scene of the mishap and Dr. Samuel I. Sillings of Mannington. Five were sent to Fairmont General Hospital where they were undergoing treatment last night and reported in good condition. The last three men were pronounced "in good shape: and were not hospitalized.
Almost before the 21 reached the surface, another explosion ripped through the mine and damaged Mod's Run portal, 603 feet above the mine level, an estimated 15 to 20 minutes after the initial blast. Another smaller "pop," probably resulting from the pressure generated by the fire and the ignition of gases the blaze itself created, was later reported.
About 10 p.m., another explosion ripped the seal from the Mod's Run ventilating shaft and sent it hurtling across a county road. It was followed by the appearance of additional smoke. At the same hour, flames were reported rising 150 feet above the Llewellyn Run portal and the Mannington fire department was called to wet down the cars in the parking lot. It was impossible to remove the cars because of the heat, smoke and hazard.
Word of the disaster spread quickly, and mine officials were joined by inspectors from the U. S. Bureau of Mines and the West Virginia Department of Mines. Leslie C. Ryan, state inspector-at- large, and Maurice S. Childers, acting subdistrict manager for the bureau, took charge with four and six men, respectively, assigned initially to duty. Others arrived later in the day as shifts were changed.
Workman and Lee M. Morris, also of the State Department of Mines, arrived on the scene at 12:45 after having flown to Bridgeport in a plane dispatched by the governor.
Charles R. Nailler of Morgantown, operating vice president of Consol, and his assistant, Harold Suter, joined David H. Davis, Mountaineer president, and most of the officials of the company. At Mountaineer headquarters in Monongah, Treasurer Elmus L. Snoderley assumed responsibility for issuing information.
C. Howard Hardesty Jr., senior vice president of Continental Oil Co., which owns Consol, accompanied Corcoran from Pittsburgh after having flown there from Chicago on receipt of word about the Explosion. Don Ewart, vice president and general counsel of Consol, also was in the group.
James R. McCartney of Morgantown, director of personnel and public relations for Consol, set up press headquarters in the Champion Store and presided at a series of briefings held throughout the day. The explosion attracted the largest group of out-of-town news media in years.
Nailler pinpointed the last known locations of the six production crews, each of six men, in the mine. The mine map was marked to show them at the end, Ten South, of the Main West headings, 5 Left off Nine South, 3 Left of Seven South, 4 Right of Eight North, 3 Right off Seven North and 1 Right off Six North. The other miners were believed to have been engaged in other work on the mail haulage roads, the belt conveyor lines and elsewhere in the area.
Sheriff Robert H. Tennant dispatched his full force of field deputies to the scene early yesterday morning Sgt. D. L. Lake commanded 12 State Police and others were to work in rotation. The Marion County Police Reserve, with its communications truck, turned out early. Many ambulances and emergency cars made an appearance but their services were not required except for the transportation of the five survivors to the hospital.
Secretary-Treasurer L. Clyde Riley of UMWA District 31 and Charles Sabo of the Morgantown office of the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund were also on the scene. Later other members of the staff accompanied from Washington by Rex W. Lauck, associate editor of the United Mine Workers Journal. UMW officials said it is expected that W. A. (Tony) Boyle, international president, will make a personal visit here today. One of the last trips made to this section by John L. Lewis before his retirement as head of the mine union was to Farmington No. 9 on the occasion of the 1954 explosion.
The American Red Cross disaster unit from Fairmont under the supervision of Mary Edith Bell, executive secretary, and David Daniels, chapter president, was on the scene, as was the Salvation Army. Women of the James Fork Methodist Church prepared coffee and sandwiches for rescue workers and officials.
Headquarters for the rescue teams were established in the UMWA Local 4047 hall on Atha's Run about half way between No. 9 slope and the Atha's Run portal. It was expected that they would continue to remain there while operations centered in the mine offices around the preparation plant.
Poundstone said it has not yet been determined when the rescue teams can enter the mine, but it is expected that they probably will use the crane and bucket system at Mahan's Run, although this opening is on a narrow, muddy, country road.
After the late afternoon briefing, Poundstone said nothing further would be given out until 10 a.m. today when he and other officials again will face the horde of news media representatives on the scene.
Farmington, acquired by Consol in 1956 from Jamison Coal & Coke Co., operates in the Pittsburgh seam and has a daily production of 9,400 tons, all of which is shipped by unit trains. The largest consumers are public utilities, which burn the seam coal under boilers for the generation of electricity.
Last year, the State Department of Mines records show, the mine had 343 employees, including supervisors. Personnel officials said yesterday there had been little change in that total. If the 78 trapped men are dead, about 44 per cent of the mine's work force will be eliminated.