Sealed fate

Forty-three years later, new details emerge in book about No. 9 mine disaster

November 20, 2011


FAIRMONT — Jim Matish awoke with a start at 5:20 in the morning on Nov. 20, 1968, the images of a dream still swirling in his head in which a miner yelled “Fire in the hole!” just before a huge explosion.
He got up and went to school. It was two days before his 15th birthday.
“I heard kids talking about No. 9 blowing up,” said Matish, a native of Shinnston and a Harrison County circuit court judge in Clarksburg since 2000.
“It really didn’t register with me what was being said.”
Then, during second period, the principal got him out of class and he saw his mother, Mary, standing there crying.
“I knew what had happened from putting everything togeth­er.”
What had happened was that Matish’s father, Frank, was one of 78 men trapped inside the Farmington No. 9 mine, unable to get out, his fate unknown at the time, after an explosion ripped through the depths of the earth just before 5:30 a.m.
As with other families, including Gladys Megna and her son, Joe, the waiting game began. Matish stayed in school while his mother returned to the mine, operated by Consolidation Coal Co., to watch rescue efforts and wait for news. The Megnas were directed to the company store after they had tried to reach the portal.
Ninety-nine men had been in the mine at the time of the blast; 21 made it out alive, including three photographed as they were hoisted in a bucket in a photograph that has become an indelible image linked with the disaster.
Frank Matish was not among them, nor was Emilio Megna.
Ten days later, as fires continued to burn, coal company offi­cials decided to pour concrete into the mine to seal it and deprive it of oxygen.
“They called us together at a church that was close to the company store, and they made the announcement that night that they were ceasing all recovery operations and they were sealing the mine,” Matish recalled. “Trucks were on the way to the mine to drop limestone into the mine and they put cement caps over the entrance.”
And with that, all hope for a rescue was extinguished. The mine would remain sealed until September 1969, when recovery efforts resumed. “You realize what they are saying and that was probably the most horrendous, gut-wrenching thing, to be in a roomful of people — spouses, parents, brothers, sisters, children. Sealing the mine, you knew … that decision was going to seal the fate of all those people. You’ve got 70-some men and 250 depend­ents who just heard that their loved one is gone forever. It’s something you never want to live through.”
Said Joe Megna, “It was just like somebody ripped your heart out. That would be about it.”
Forty-three years later, Matish and Megna recalled events that defined a huge portion of their childhoods, steering Matish into his career as a lawyer but failing to keep Megna, of Worthington, from becoming a coal miner like his father.
Both men also told their stories to Bonnie E. Stewart, until recently an associate professor at the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University. She recently took a job as a member of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s environ­mental team of reporters.
Her book, “No. 9,” published earlier this month by West Virginia University Press, explores the causes behind the explosion. During her research, she found a handwritten memo in a box of papers in a federal office in Beckley about how a safety alarm on a ventilation fan had been intentionally bypassed.
“That fan stopped running on the morning of the disaster, allow­ing methane gas to reach explosive levels in the mine,” she said. “Had the alarm sounded when the fan stopped, the men would have known to come out; instead, 78 men died.”
Matish helped Stewart under­stand the scope of the mine by tak­ing her on a tour of the area, including to the disaster memorial, not located in Farmington but about 10 miles away in Flat Run, close to where 19 bodies remain entombed.
In return, Matish is impressed by the amount of research and effort that went into Stewart’s book, including that she got in touch with the federal inspector who wrote the memo, after a National Public Radio story revealed the existence of the docu­ment and the man’s son contacted her. ” She’s tracked down people — it’s mind-boggling she could find some of the people she did after 40 years,” Matish said. “There were people that had worked at the mine that were not working on that shift.”
Megna also appreciates the investigation that Stewart did into the disaster, even though talking about the incident and the loss of his father still makes him both angry and sad.
“She really found information that … we were sheltered. What do you know about coal mines when you are 16?”
That’s how old Megna was when his father died during what was supposed to be his final shift before retiring to open up a gas station in Worthington with his son. That never happened and instead, Megna got a job pumping gas on the East Side of Fairmont. Eventually, in spite of what hap­pened to his father, he too worked in the mines. Now he is disabled.
In order to get to the bottom of what happened at the No. 9 mine, Stewart filed several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with government agencies, seek­ing documents between Consolidation Coal Co. officials and federal investigators.
“The book is quite comprehen­sive and includes details that have never been collected in one place,” Stewart said.
Consolidation Coal Co. changed its name to Consol Energy in the late 1990s and has become known as a leader in coal industry safety.
“Safety is our core value. It is more than just a priority,” spokes­woman Cathy St. Clair told The Associated Press in May. “Priorities change; values do not. We empower every employee to stop any practice he or she feels is unsafe, and we work every day to reinforce our safety values to every employee, contractor and supplier.”
When Megna worked as a miner, he was employed by Consol and he believes the compa­ny has a completely different out­look on safety now. He also admires current CEO Jimmy Brock for the work he has done to spruce up the No. 9 memorial and create a safer path so those paying tribute to the 78 men have an easi­er time getting there.
The annual ceremony com­memorating the disaster will be held at the memorial at 1 p.m. today.
A native of Indiana, Stewart worked for newspapers in Indiana and California before landing at WVU in 2005 just as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She ended up as the director of the school’s Katrina Project (katri­, a multimedia endeavor in which stu­dents interviewed Katrina refugees who fled to West Virginia.
“Then we took three students to New Orleans to report on people who had been in West Virginia and gone back home,” she said.
Stewart was looking for a topic to research for a book and a friend suggested the No. 9 mine disaster. One of Stewart’s Katrina Project students from Marion County introduced her to some coal min­ers in the area and then she began seeking out documents to discover the truth behind the cause of the disaster.
“I had no idea what this story was going to be,” Stewart said. “I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t know what the records would reveal. It was truly an exploration for me.”
Matish’s experience as the child of a No. 9 victim prompted him to go to law school and he started his general practice in 1978. That was the same year that after 59 of the 78 men had been recovered, Consolidation Coal Co. made the decision to seal the mine again.
Frank Matish’s body was one of the 19 that was never found.
“One of the first cases I worked on with several other attorneys was a suit we filed to keep Consol from sealing the mine,” Matish said.
The suit went nowhere; the families of the survivors were offered a $10,000 settlement. The media attention given to the disas­ter was credited with the creation of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which established the office now known as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
Joe Megna’s mother, Gladys, eventually was granted black lung benefits for her husband after a federal law determined that any­one who worked in the mines for 30 years was eligible.
Today, Gladys Megna’s ashes are buried at the memorial so that she may spend eternity with her husband, whose remains, like Frank Matish’s, were never recov­ered. Workers did find his flame safety light, however, leading his son to believe that had the recov­ery effort continued, his father’s remains would have been found.
Although Matish has spent more than 40 years recounting what happened to his father, it took a question from Stewart to recall something that had not occurred to him yet.
“One time when Bonnie was talking to me, she asked me, ‘What was the last thing you said to your dad?’ I never thought about it. It was very emotional. I can say it now, but I couldn’t say it at the time.”
He had told his father, “So long, Dad. Don’t work too hard, and be careful.”
“I hadn’t thought about that in 40-some years,” he said. “That’s what I said to him every night.”