Disaster’s widows recalled
One woman was giving birth at home when they hauled her husband’s corpse through the door.
Officials handed another woman some severed body parts. They told her that was her husband. She never knew for sure.
Another woman’s husband was never found. For years, kids would walk past her house and see her ceaselessly hauling rubble away from the old mine, one little sack at a time, piling it maybe 350 tons deep next to her house, trying to unbury him.
On Dec. 6, 1907, the Monongah No. 6 and No. 8 mines exploded, killing at least 362 men and boys — half of the breadwinners in the Marion County mining town.
Nobody has ever really talked about what happened to the widows and estimated 1,000 children — mostly immigrants who spoke little English — left to fend for themselves, said filmmaker Gina Martino Dahlia, acting chairman of West Virginia University’s broadcast news program and former press secretary for Gov. Joe Manchin during his 2000 run for secretary of state.
Her documentary, “The Monongah Heroine,” will air on West Virginia Public Television at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, the 100-year anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.
“There have been movies done on the disaster — books written about it — but nothing on the women,” said Dahlia, who comes from a Marion County immigrant Italian coal family.
“They’re the true survivors. They had to make it after their husbands were killed.”
Some lost not only their husbands, but also their young sons, maybe 9 to 12 years old, who were used to boost their fathers’ tonnage per day and thereby boost their paychecks. Some women were left with a houseful of children and extended family to take care of. There was no time to grieve.
Davitt McAteer, a Fairmont native and former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, just published his own book about the disaster.
“He makes the point that they had to bury the men fast, because there was a big threat of disease,” Dahlia said. “They were throwing body parts in caskets saying, ‘Identify this fast and then bury your loved one.’
“As the women were sobbing, there was really no chance to mourn.”
The widows were supposed to get a whopping $200 to $800 compensation from a fund that had collected $150,000 in donations. But one man interviewed in Dahlia’s film remembers his mother saying she saw only $40 of that money.
Destitute, the women had to get resourceful. Some took in laundry. Some ran boardinghouses — meaning they did all of the cleaning, cooking, hauling hot water and everything else for maybe eight men. Some sewed.
One story of resourcefulness didn’t make the film, Dahlia said: A woman saw a sign on a sewing machine in the company store, saying you could try out the machine for seven days and bring it back if you didn’t like it. The woman spent every penny of the family’s money on the machine, stayed up for seven days and seven nights sewing an entire year’s supply of clothing, blankets, everything for the family, and then returned it and got the family’s money back.
While she was making the film, Dahlia kept seeing parallels in her own family.
In 1968, Dahlia’s grandfather, Sam Martino, narrowly missed getting blown up in the Farmington mine disaster, which killed 78 men about four miles away from Monongah.
“He wanted to work a double shift that day, but his ride was going — he didn’t have a car — so he had to go,” Dahlia said. “He said he’d never forget — he was brushing his teeth when he heard about the mine explosion.
“The scary thing, the fear for me, was that he still had to go to work. My grandmother really struggled with it. He lost a lot of his friends in that explosion.”
The year before, Dahlia’s mother had come to America.
In 1967, Rina Spatafore was 18 years old, just out of high school in San Giovanni in Fiore, Italy, when her family sent a photo of her to an immigrant San Giovanni mining family in Marion County that was looking for a wife for one of its sons.
“He thought she was beautiful,” Dahlia said.
Frank Martino brought his bride to Marion County, where he worked in a glass factory.
“She didn’t speak, read or write a word of English,” Dahlia said. “She struggled to fit in — going to the grocery store, going to the doctor ...”
But like many of the Monongah women, “My mother was a fantastic seamstress. She would do all kinds of sewing for our neighbors, from hemming pants to making clothes to making draperies.
“If I could say one thing I took away from making this film, it’s a greater sense of appreciation for what my own mom went through being an Italian immigrant.”
West Virginia University will hold a special preview of “The Monongah Heroine” at 6 p.m. Wednesday in 205 Martin Hall. The premiere will be open to the public.
To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.