December 1, 1968
Sealing of Farmington Mine Is Complete
Preliminary Hearing May Begin Thursday
By Bill Evans
Sealing of Farmington No. 9 mine was completed yesterday morning, 10 days after an explosion had trapped 78 of the 99 men on the cateye shift beyond hope of rescue.
Almost immediately, plans were put into motion for a preliminary hearing into the disaster, Northern West Virginia's worst in 41 years. Tentative arrangements call for the hearing to be held in the Marion County courthouse here, probably on Thursday.
Leslie C. Ryan, inspector at large for the West Virginia Department of Mines, who will make arrangements for the hearing, said he hoped to have details arranged by tomorrow, since it will take about two days to line up the witnesses and documentary evidence that will be introduced.
The preliminary hearing, in the conduct of which the state will be joined by representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the United Mine Workers of America and Consolidated on Coal Co., will be followed by a formal investigation after the ill-fated mine is "recovered" an anticipated several months hence.
Because the miles-long fires are still burning almost uncontrolled and heavy concentrations of explosive methane (natural gas) are being liberated from the coal seam, conditions of "extreme hazard" prevail around all the seals and all personnel have been withdrawn from the vicinity.
A force of more than a hundred men, working in accordance with a carefully plotted time-table, completed the sealing job at 2 a.m., closing the last of two of the 11 major openings simultaneously.
Then began a 72-hour waiting period during which frequent checks will be made of the mine atmosphere from the analysis of air samples drawn through tubes let into the seals. This is the period, mine officials said, when experience has shown there is the greatest danger from recurring explosions as pressure accumulates inside the workings.
If the seals hold as they were doing for a period of several hours after being put in place, the tests will be maintained on a regular basis - at least three times daily - until it is determined that hte mine can be safely reopened. No one will estimate how long it will take, but educated guesses are that it will be at least mid-April before the recovery operations can begin.
An effort was made to reduce the danger by closing off the entire area around the 1,350 foot slope which extends into the mine from the preparation plant. The command post was moved from the mine rescue building near the tipple to a large second-floor conference room at the Monongah headquarters of Mountaineer Coal Co., Consol's operating division which runs No. 9.
This room, in which has been placed a fresh map of the mine newly marked in red to identify the portals, shafts and boreholes where tests will be made, is only a few hundred yards from the former openings of Nos. 6 and 8 mines of Fairmont Coal Co., Consol's predecessor, where a coal dust explosion on Dec. 6, 1907 claimed at least 361 lives in this country's worst mine disaster.
Relatives of the entombed miners who have been using the James Fork United Methodist Church and nearby Community Building on the level of the slope below the No. 9 Bassnettville Road are being detoured by another approach to and from the relief centers. It is expected that the sites will be totally abandoned until the danger period has passed.
No. 9 yesterday was virtually deserted with the departure of the relatives, news media representatives and others who have been there almost constantly since the first explosion, one of the most violent in recent mine annals, erupted from the Llewellyn Run portal, seven underground miles away, at 5:25 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20.
A trailer used by Consol personnel for consultations with survivors was moved out of danger area and the cases of the 199 dependent's left by the blast will be handled by Monongah, where personnel records also are being screened for use in connection with company Social Security and Workmen's Compensation benefits. The United Mine Workers Welfare and Retirement Fund also is preparing to give immediate assistance to the stricken families.
While some preliminary preparations had been made and material already was on the scene or en route, sealing operations were not started until about 6 p.m. Friday, the hour of the official announcement that such a decision had been reached was given by John Corcoran, Consol president, first to the families and then to the press.
The incredibly complicated and highly hazardous task was completed in about eight hours, although most of the officials remained until 5 a.m. to determine whether the seals were intact and holding. The job involved covering 11 major openings and a vast number of smaller bore holes, 12 of which had been newly drilled in an effort to make contract with the entombed 76 men.
David H. Davis, Mountaineer president who has been on the job almost without relief for 10 days, summarized the operation for the Times - West Virginian as he manned the command post at Monongah receiving reports from the tests.
At the time the work began, two of the shafts were still giving off smoke and there was no assurance that more explosions would not increase the previously recorded total of 16. Light gray smoke was coming from Llewellyn and slightly darker fumes from Mahan's Run.
It was at Mahan's Run that the sealing began. This shaft was one up which weight of the 21 survivors were lifted in an emergency bucket a few hours after the first explosion and had itself been subsequently the site of three explosions.
Prefabricated steel forms were lowered by crane over the top of the twin shafts, one side having been used for intake air, the other for return. When they were in place, concrete was poured on top and around them to a depth of about two feet. The "cap" was provided with relief valves and sampling tubes.
Before Mahan's Run was completely sealed, a crew at Llewellyn began filling its shafts with limestone chunks, followed by a smaller size of the same material to form a solid "plug" near the bottom of the openings. A long conveyer was used at first to deposit the limestone in the shaft with the least danger to the workmen. Later piles of limestone dumped on the ground were pushed down the holes with bulldozers.
A fleet of 90 trucks carried the limestone to Llewellyn, about four miles northwest of Mannington, and an estimated 1,600 tons of the material was dropped. This process has first been used several days ago at the Mod's Run air shafts and had proved so effective in controlling the situation there that it was not necessary to put further seals at that location yesterday.
With about half of the limestone in Llewellyn, sealing of the slope and the intake air shaft at the No. 1 fan, located near the preparation plant, was begun. A dozen feet down the long incline a stopping made largely of a plastic foam material was put in place. The temperature made it unnecessary to warm the foam with electric lights until it set, and it was holding well several hours later.
Left to the last was Atha's Run, the portal destroyed by the Nov. 12, 1954 explosions which killed one mane there and kept 15 others entombed until the following spring. The elevator was hoisted about five feet off the portal floor, and it was necessary for the sealing crew, protected by safety belts, to work below the cage and directly over the 483 foot shaft.
Here the seals were "custom made" to allow space for the elevator guides and cables. The entire seal was then concreted in place.
When the main shaft at Atha's Run was about 70 per cent sealed, the No. 1 fan was shut down for the first time since the initial explosion. It and a fan at Atha's Run had been pumping millions of cubit feet of air a day into the mine in order that any trapped men would not be deprived of oxygen.
With the fan stopped at 1:30 a.m. a seal was placed over the entire unit. Then concrete was poured over the Atha's Run air intake. Finally, the gooseneck carrying air from the fan at that point was removed, a seal was placed over the intake shaft and concreted into place to complete the job.
David directed operations at Llewellyn. Charles R. Naillier, operating vice president of Control was stationed at Mahan's Run; Kenneth K. Kincell, manager of mines, was at Atha's Run and Lawrence M. Riggs. Riggs, general superintendent took charge at the slope. All were in constant telephone communication and coordinated their efforts so that each phase of the operation would be properly time. This was necessary. Davis explained, to prevent one seal from causing a buildup of pressure in another area.
In addition to the company forces at work. Industrial Contractors also had men on the job and provided some of the prefabricated seals used in the crash program to seal the miners as expeditiously as possible.
A formal statement from Consol reporting that the sealing operation had been completed carried a warning that "the danger of explosion is still great. The area of the various shafts is considered hazardous and all unauthorized personnel are being denied access to them...Officials were cautiously optimistic that the seals would be effect in controlling the fire."
As relatives of the entombed men, for whom those directing the rescue operations finally gave up hope Friday when they ordered the mine sealed, bore their grief quietly, other employes of the ill- fated mine turned their thoughts to what they will do until No. 9 reopens. Many of the 225 remaining on the payroll are expected to take jobs offered them at other Mountaineer mines, those of its sister company, Christopher Coal in Monongalia County, or perhaps other companies in the area.
With the announcement by John Corcoran, president of Consol, at 6:31 p.m. Friday that "the cumulative evidence shows without question that human life is not possible west of Mod's Run where the men would be located," the Farmington disaster entered the record books as the nation's worst since 119 perished on Dec. 21, 19, in a West Frankfort, ILL., mine.
The death toll was surpassed in Northern West Virginia only by the 97 recorded at Everettville on April 30, 1927, and of course, by the Monongah disaster which took place a stone's throw from the scene of today's present recovery operation head quarters.