LOOK at coal industry records, and you’ll be horrified. A sickening total of 686 West Virginia miners were killed on the job in 1925. The next year, the toll was 574. The next, it was 590. Armies of diggers were sent into black holes with little protection for their lives. A single underground explosion at Monongah, Marion County, killed 362 in 1907 — the worst mine disaster in U.S. history. It caused Congress to create the U.S. Bureau of Mines to seek safety.Eventually, the crusading began to cut the human loss. Then in 1968, another 78 miners died in a terrible blast beneath Farmington, just five miles from Monongah. It forced Congress to pass the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act imposing tough rules and strict inspections.For years afterward, some mine owners tried to evade the new safety requirements. Numerous prosecutions were held in Charleston for operators who faked coal dust samples, bribed inspectors, or the like. Nationwide, hundreds of convictions were obtained.But the prosecutions diminished, and so did fatalities. Recently, the industry’s death toll in West Virginia has shrunk as low as single digits annually — something once deemed impossible. Still, coal mining remains America’s most dangerous major occupation, about seven times more lethal than most industries, according to federal reports.
The specter of past tragedies loomed before West Virginia again this week when a Monday morning explosion trapped 13 miners underground in Upshur County. The world watched the once-familiar scene of desperate relatives gathered outside a blast-shattered mine, their faces tense with fear mingled with frantic hope.For almost two days only ominous silence met them from below.On Tuesday evening, rescuers found the body of one miner. Then, just before midnight, the other 12 were found alive.We join the rest of the state and much of the nation in breathing a sigh of relief and gratitude for the miners and their families, and of condolence for the family of the miner who died.Hard-working rescuers deserve credit for completing their risky work. Friends and relatives helped to prop each other up during the tense wait. The miners themselves appear to have helped to preserve their own lives by barricading themselves in a pocket of relatively breathable air, probably saving themselves from the high level of carbon monoxide detected throughout the rescue effort.After the euphoria passes, state and federal mine safety officials and company leaders have many questions to answer. New owners of the mine say their pit had “an extremely good safety record.” Yet inspection records imply otherwise.Federal inspectors cited the mine for 208 safety violations in 2005 — triple the 68 found in 2004. State inspectors found 144 violations in 2005 — double the 74 in 2004. Why the upsurge in violations? Former owners went through bankruptcy. Was safety neglected during their distress?Investigations must be conducted to learn what went wrong in Upshur County, and to try to prevent a return of the tragedies that once wracked West Virginia constantly.