Coal mines are notoriously dangerous places to work. There are many things that can go wrong, such as gas build ups, fires, cave-ins and explosions. The Monongah mine disaster of 1907 had all of these things. It was a tragedy that devastated the town and changed many policies regarding mine safety. It remains the single deadliest coal mining incident in the United States to this day.
The Monongah mine disaster occurred on December 6, 1907. The day started off like any other day at the Fairmont Coal Company mines. The men and boys that worked the mines arrived for their shifts and set to work. At about 10:20 a.m. a large explosion occurred deep in the mines. The explosion shook the ground and caused significant damage to mines 6 and 8 and left nearly all of the workers dead or trapped inside. It was later determined that the cause of the explosion was the accidental ignition of coal dust.
After the explosion, volunteer rescuers from Monongah and family members of mine workers flocked to the site and began setting about finding survivors. The primary entrance to mine 6 had become blocked by damaged mining equipment and the debris from a cave in. Rescuers were eventually able to get into both mines, but it was soon discovered that the ventilation system in the mines had been damaged. This put the rescuers themselves at risk and they were forced to work in 15 minute shifts so that the gases that were quickly building up would not kill them. Nevertheless, several of them became ill and required medical treatment.
The first survivors were found within a short time. Some men had found their way out of the mines, but they were unable to gauge the situation inside and therefore could not give the rescuers any insight into just how bad the damage was. The residents of Monongah soon learned.
Rescue efforts were hindered by gases, as noted above, and by destroyed mining equipment that was scattered about. The rescuers worked diligently to find survivors, but it seemed they were finding more bodies than anything else. Monongah residents soon had to turn the local bank into a temporary morgue to accommodate the bodies of many of their men and their male children.
On December 8, the people of Monongah and any men that were still trapped in the mines were dealt another blow. Fires broke out in mine 8 and mine 6. It was even more difficult for rescuers to get into the mines because of the smoke. However, they continued to toil, even though the last man to be rescued had been rescued the day of the disaster, at around 4 p.m. They continued to search until December 12, by which time 327 bodies had been recovered from the mines. Twenty-five more were discovered during the subsequent cleanup.
Three hundred sixty-two men and boys lost their lives in the Monongah mining disaster. Some of their bodies were so badly burned and crushed that they were unrecognizable. Roughly 250 women became widows that day, and around 1,000 children became fatherless.