Even after nearly 50 years, the memories are still raw.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds.
Family, community members and miners still mourn the men lost in the Farmington Mine Disaster.
Seventy eight men died on Nov. 20, 1968, in Consolidation Coal’s No. 9 Mine.
Folks gathered Sunday afternoon for the annual memorial service, and this year marks the disaster’s 49th anniversary.
Moving ahead is necessary, but not easy, even from a distance.
Even after all these years.
Mary Barr-Anton was just a child when her father died doing what he loved – mining coal.
Simply put, he loved life. Until the very end.
“He was a jokester, and liked to pull a lot of pranks. He lived high off of life,” she said.
A strapping fellow, he loved his co-workers and considered them friends too.
“He really loved all the men he worked with down there, because he would come home and talk about them. They did have each other’s back. They were a team.”
Just eight years old at the time, she doesn’t remember too much about the event.
She hasn’t forgotten, however, how others described the explosion.
“They used to say that the ground rattled and shook, that it felt like a really big, powerful earthquake when the mine blew up. But then again, there were portals all around. And you knew what it meant.”
In an instant, she and her mother were left alone.
They left their Miracle Run home to live with her maternal grandparents.
His bones were eventually recovered, and he was buried closer to where they’d moved after he died.
Even now, it’s hard to think about losing her father.
Her mother is also deceased, and she finds comfort knowing her parents are once again together.
Despite the pain, there’s also pride.
She knows the miners deaths ultimately helped pave the way for better working conditions.
And preventing additional unnecessary deaths, too.
“All of these men helped change the course of history as far as the rules and regulations when it came to mine safety,” she said.
Her cousin, Jane Mehaffey, remembers the disaster scene like it was yesterday, and has written about it on social media.
“I remember going to the mine site. They wouldn’t let us close and there was so much smoke.
My grandparents were devastated. They sealed the mine before they found my uncle because the mine was on fire.”
The only good news from that fateful day was that 21 men escaped alive.
But the fire continued to burn in the mine, making things worse for family members awaiting word on their loved ones.
Scorching fire meant the mine was sealed Nov. 30, just nine days after the explosion.
The miners’ bodies remained inside.
In 1969, it was reopened with most of the bodies removed as the search continued for nine years.
However, 19 men were destined to be entombed in the darkness forever.
Their bodies were never recovered.
The mine became their grave.
Their names are marked with a star on the monument erected following the disaster, and it also lists the other victims’ names.
Even after all these years, that sad reality is personal for Marion County resident Anthony Pulice Jr.
“I was on active duty with the (National Guard) 201st at the mine site for over a week during those sad days.
The man who operated the crane to hoist some of the miners out of the mine shaft became a personal friend after that sad night.
I was there when he lifted them out, until no more got into the bucket.”
That was one of many heartbreaking moments, Pulice said.
“I also remember when we lowered a microphone down through a hole we drilled into an area of the mine.We listened hoping to hear voices, and all we could hear was the trickle of water.”
Family members were in a nearby church, including many youngsters.
“There were many young and tiny ones in that family church. Many, many tears and hugs.
Our local unit of the 201st Field Artillery attempted to prepare and deliver hot meals to the people involved…until the final decision to close the mine.”
News photographer Bob Campione never forgot being called to the heartbreaking event in Farmington.
He later dedicated part of his life to helping others remember the tragedy and learn from it.
His book, “1968 Farmington Mine Disaster,” is a self-described labor of love.
Its goal is to keep the miners’ memories alive, while also serving the future.
“My intention is not to focus on the misfortune of that time but to remember and honor all miners, past and present, for their hard work and dedication to the job, their families and our country.
Mine safety legislation and new laws governing mining of all types were invoked because of the sacrifices these men and their families made.”
Widows were a driving force at the time.
Coupled with national media coverage, they pressed federal officials for stricter mine safety and health standards.
The federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was a direct result of the Farmington disaster and its aftermath.
These new regulations created the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration.
It also allowed miners who developed black lung to receive monetary compensation.
The late Rep. Ken Hechler, D-W.Va., was a leading proponent as Congress debated the proposed act.
Not seeing it become law wasn’t an option, according to The New York Times.
— ASSE (@ASSE_Safety) August 13, 2015
“When President Richard M. Nixon wavered over signing the coal safety bill, citing concerns over signing the coal safety bill, Mr. Hechler contacted the widows of seven miners lost in the Farmington disaster and chartered two small planes to bring them to Washington.
Shortly before the women met with aides to Mr. Nixon, the White House announce that he would sign the measure.”