West Virginia and mining go together like coal and dust, which means the impoverished state has seen more than its fair share of serious industrial accidents – including the worst mining disaster in American history. The scene of this tragedy was the Consolidated Coal Company’s mine at Monongah, consisting of an elaborate labyrinth of tunnels with entrance shafts connected by a steel bridge above the West Fork River.
On the morning of December 6 a full complement of men and boys were working their shift. Many – over half – were immigrants from southern Italy who lived in houses built on the hillside above the mine. Mid-morning a massive underground explosion shook the ground. As a result of a carelessly opened lamp or botched dynamite blast, firedamp (methane gas) had exploded, starting a chain reaction with suspended bituminous dust that ripped through shafts six and eight of the mine.
The result was disastrous for the unfortunates below ground. Many survived the explosion, but the ventilation system had been destroyed and poisonous fumes swiftly permeated the mine. Wreckage blocked escape routes and rescuers could only work for short periods before they, too, suffered from gas inhalation. A large crowd of distraught family members and spectators gathered at the ruined main entrance awaiting news, which was all bad. As bodies were carried out – many mangled or burned beyond recognition – it became apparent that there were few if any survivors. By the end of the day 250 widows and 1,000 fatherless children were in mourning, along with their community.
The Monongah disaster provided impetus to the growing movement towards greater mine safety. America’s mine owners subsequently fought hard against government regulation – with considerable success – but the fact that accidents reduced productivity caused them to start improving safety measures for themselves.
When was the Monongah Mining Disaster: December 6 1907
Where was the Monongah Mining Disaster: Monongah, West Virginia, USA
What was the Monongah Mining Disaster death toll: No definitive total has been established. The official death toll was 361, but unofficial estimates are considerably higher.
You should know: The sole survivor of the Monongah blast was a man called Peter Urban, who managed to find a hole through which to escape before toxic gases killed him, though his twin brother did perish, it was only a reprieve – he was subsequently killed in a mine cave-in.