MANNINGTON — Early in the morning, 50 years ago today, Cecelia Donato’s family farmhouse started rattling. In Fairmont, Bob Campione’s mom answered a phone call from his editor. Tina Malcomb waited for her dad to come home from work.
It was just before 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 20, 1968 when an explosion tore through the Consolidation Coal No. 9 mine in Marion County. The Farmington Mine Disaster would ultimately leave 78 miners dead — 19 of their bodies have never been recovered — and spur many safety and regulatory changes in the coal industry.
Half a century later, families of the coal miners are still fighting against the mine’s owner in court. Lawyers for the families have appealed a case in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that Consolidation Coal purposely covered up the fact that the mine’s chief electrician meddled with the safety system and hid the explosion’s true cause. Questions on the case were sent to the West Virginia Supreme Court in August.
On the day of the explosion, Donato’s mother, Nellia Simons, was getting ready to go to work at Fairmont General hospital when the house shook. She woke her husband, James, who worked the afternoon shift at a nearby mine. He ran down the road to try to help.
From her house, Donato could see smoke and flames over the hillside.
Around 6:30 a.m., Campione got a call on his house phone from his editor, Bill Evans. Campione, a student at Fairmont State University, had worked as a photographer at the Fairmont Times during high school and college, but was forced to set it aside. That morning, Evans asked him to work anyway.
As he and Evans approached the area, they saw smoke billowing from the ground.
“I knew then it was a pretty bad disaster,” Campione said.
As word began to spread of the explosions, families gathered at the company store. The storage room in the back became a makeshift newsroom, where Campione and other reporters crowded to cover the story.
Tina Malcomb was too young to go with them, but her family stood in the store, waiting for her dad, James Ray Kniceley, to come home.
Malcomb, then 10 years old, was close to her dad. When he wasn’t working, Kniceley was “outdoorsy” and loved to play softball. Malcomb remembers the Juicy Fruit gum he kept in his shirt, and their trips to the neighborhood shop to get a cold beer after his softball games. He’d set her up on top of the pinball machine and give her nickels to play games. She still loves to play.
Too young to really comprehend the situation that morning, Malcomb remembers staying quiet. The No. 9 mine was about 22 square miles, though. He could’ve been far enough away that he’d be safe, she thought.
Just before the third major explosion shot flames into the sky, Donato’s family tossed food and clothes in a basket and fled their methane-filled hollow to a cousin’s house. After they left, an explosion shattered Donato’s bedroom window. When she returned more than a week later, she found the coal that broke the window sitting on her bed.
Nine days after the first explosion, Consolidation Coal announced they’d be sealing the mine.
“That meant [there] was no hope,” Malcomb said. After that, her family held a “mock funeral” for her father.
Years later, a team recovered all but 19 bodies underground before permanently sealing the mine. When they found Kniceley, he still had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in his shirt pocket.
On Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., addressed a crowd huddled around the No. 9 memorial in Mannington.
Manchin, then a student at West Virginia University, got a call from his mom early in the morning in 1968.
“Joe, something happened, we don’t know what,” his mom told him.
Manchin would later find out his uncle was among the 78 inside the mine. His was among the many families gathered inside the No. 9 company store. They should’ve known more, he said.
“We sat there for days, I’ll never forget that. And we never knew anything, until we finally found they were going to seal the mine,” he said. The families should’ve been involved in that decision, he said.
Now, Manchin said, there are efforts to “undo” safety laws that miners died for.
“I commit to you every ounce of blood in my body and every fiber of my body is going to fight to make sure they never forget the sacrifices that were made for the safety laws we have today. Because we’re not fighting the old coal barons as you’ve known it before, we’re fighting the hedge fund and Wall Street, which owns most of these large corporations,” the senator told a crowd of people who wore No. 9 pins on their shirts.
A 2014 lawsuit, filed first in Marion Circuit Court before it was moved to federal court in northern West Virginia, claims the mine’s owner, Consolidation Coal, “deliberately concealed the fact that [chief electrician Alex] Kovarbasich disabled the safety system and, thus, concealed the true causes of the explosion,” according to documents later filed in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, where plaintiffs appealed the case after it was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Irene M. Keeley.Lawyers for the families argue that, because they didn’t find out until 2014 that Kovarbasich disabled the safety system, they couldn’t allege a claim against Consolidation Coal until then. A memo from a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector, Larry Layne, said the safety system was inoperable before the mine exploded. But Layne’s statement didn’t include Kovarbasich’s name, and it wasn’t discovered by the families until 2008.
“It’s trying to get people the justice they deserved back when it happened because they didn’t have the right information, through no fault of their own, on how to get that justice,” said Scott Segal, an attorney for the families.
In August, the 4th Circuit asked West Virginia Supreme Court justices to answer two questions about whether fraudulent concealment can apply to injury that involves wrongful death.
Half a century later, Sharon Efaw still gets nervous when she doesn’t hear from her two grandsons who work in the mines.
In 1968, Efaw’s father, Elijah Kittle, had just been moved off the midnight shift. He was headed to work when he found out about the explosions. After that, he quit his job and went into road construction.
Efaw remembers her friends’ fathers who never came out, and seeing everyone outside the company store, waiting for information.
“I know what my dad and them did to get the mines safe, and I think there’s a lot of young kids going in there and they don’t realize what the older guys went through to get the mines safe for them, and they could care less,” she said.
Donato can remember feeling the house shake, and knowing something was wrong. It’s hard not to think about it this time of year.
“It’s sad, I don’t think it’s something you ever get over. Being older now you can look back and see these kids that lost their fathers, and you think I don’t know how they did it being so young,” she said.
Whenever the weather’s overcast and there’s a little bit of sleet, Malcomb is brought back to that moment in 1968, waiting for her dad to come home. She wishes her daughter would’ve met him.
“If that had to happen, if I had to lose a parent, I really thank God I still had my mom as a little girl growing up,” she said. “It changes your entire life, the way you are, the way you think. I was raised by very strong women, very independent, we had each other, and that was it.”
Years ago, she was married to a coal miner who let her spend a night in the mines. She’d always dreamed about how awful it would be and how scary it was for her father, but found closure when she went underground.
“It was great to be able to do that, to be able to see for myself, it’s like a city underground,” she said. “It just healed me.”