Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2018.

Blast in No. 9

50 years after a deadly mine explosion in Farmington, West Virginia, the cause of the incident remains unknown


Early on the morning of November 20, 1968, Gary Martin was “running buggy,” as he called it, in the Consolidation Coal Company’s No. 9 mine in Farmington, West Virginia. As a mechanic among the roughly 100 miners on site that morning, Martin was driving the shuttle car, or buggy, along the mine railway when the power went out. “I thought, What in the world’s going on?” he said in a video produced in 2009 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Then came the explosion. “Man, it was like somebody hit me in the face with a bucket full of dirt,” he recalled. “You couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. So I just pulled my shirt up over my face and sat down. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face it was so dusty.” He sat there for a couple of minutes before he and some others who had been in the area during the explosion crawled back out of the mine, using the buggy cable as a guide through the darkness and clouds of dust.

Martin was one of only 21 miners who were able to make it out alive. Seventy-eight miners died—some in the explosion and fire, some days after the incident occurred, entombed in the earth after rescue efforts failed and the mine was closed off. “Nine days after the fire had started it was still burning out of control,” an article in NFPA’s May 1969 edition of Fire Journal reported. “When all attempts to reach the trapped miners had failed the mine was sealed, in hope of extinguishing the fire.” It was the worst loss-of-life fire in the country that year, according to NFPA.

The cause of the explosion remains unknown. But Martin described to NIOSH how miners had long complained about ventilation issues inside the No. 9 mine, leading to theories that the blast resulted from excess coal dust along with high concentrations of gas in the air. Two weeks before the explosion, a large fire occurred in the mine but was never reported to authorities, Martin said.

The disaster prompted laws designed to improve safety for miners throughout the United States, according to the eighth edition of Public Policymaking, a public policy textbook published in 2015. “This major tragedy, well reported by the national news media, focused the nation’s attention on the miners’ plight, including not only explosions and other accidents but also black-lung disease,” the book reads.

In March 1969, West Virginia passed legislation providing compensation for victims of black-lung disease, and in October of that year the federal government passed similar legislation requiring stronger safety standards and additional oversight for mines.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: AP/Wide World