Fire In The Hole

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One Hundred years ago at 10:20 am on Friday, December 6, 1907, trapped methane gas and coal dust ignited in the Nos. 6 and 8 mines of the Fairmont Coal Company in Monongah, West Virginia, setting off a series of violent explosions that shook the earth as far as eight miles away, threw people and horses to the ground, knocked streetcars off their rails, and collapsed nearby buildings. The long horizontal mine shaft morphed into an immense cannon, shooting heavy chunks of concrete and machine parts across the Monongahela River.

A shocked nation held its collective breath as rescuers clawed through immense heaps of rubble and around railcars filled with tons of coal in a desperate search for survivors. A local chronicler reported the deaths as “74 white and colored Americans, 171 Italians, 25 Austrians, 52 Hungarians, 31 Russians, and five Turks.” Many of the 363 fatalities in the nation’s worst mining disaster were boys.

Last summer’s roof collapse at Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine that trapped and killed six miners is a reminder that underground coal, metal, and non-metal mining remains a dangerous industry, which killed 46 miners in job-related accidents last year despite innovations in safety technology, laws, and prevention. The first decade of the 20th century took more than 2,000 lives every year in coal mining alone. These disasters prompted Congress in 1910 to establish the Bureau of Mines within the U.S. Department of Interior and charged it with conducting research into mine safety and reducing accidents.