My mom was a coal miner’s daughter. She came from a little holler called Monongah, a small town nestled along the Monongahela River in West Virginia. I loved her stories about my grandfather, Liberato Delasandro. Because of circumstance, he became a mystic and healer, tending to the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of what was left of Monongah after one fateful day.
On Dec. 6, 1907, Liberato and his three friends failed to show up for their shift at the Consolidated Coal Mine. Instead, they played cards and drank wine. At 10 a.m., after a full shift descended into the mine, No. 6 and No. 8 shook from the impact of an underground explosion. Three-hundred sixty-two men and boys lost their lives, leaving 250 widows and more than 1,000 children fatherless. It was the worst mining disaster in American history.
My grandfather rushed to the mine’s entrance and frantically began rescue operations. Crowds gathered, waiting for news about their families and friends. Liberato and his friends brought disheartening news. Mine accidents rarely have a happy ending. Only one man was found alive.
They were digging for coal to feed their families on dollar-a-day wages. Coal mining is a way of life for West Virginians. There is more energy under the hills of West Virginia than in Saudi Arabia. The miners dig in cold, dark, damp, dusty, gaseous and dangerous caverns thousands of feet beneath the earth. Realizing that death stalks them daily, they entrust their existence to those who descend with them.
Miners do the dirty work, providing more than 52% of our energy. Our prosperity rests on their backs, for they bring the “black gold” that helps propel our economy.
Life goes on for us in La Cañada, but it will not for those families in Montcoal, W. Va., affected by the recent mine disaster. Twenty-nine men recently died in the worst mining disaster since 1970, leaving behind sons, daughters, wives, mothers, dads and friends.
Liberato Delasandro survived the Monongah mining disaster, but on Dec. 6, 1962, his son-in-law, my Uncle Nicola Caromana, died along with 36 other men in the Robena Mine explosion in Carmichaels, Pa. I was 15 at the time. I remember the waiting, the anticipating, the praying, and then that tremendous letdown. My consciousness has been in solidarity with Uncle Nicola’s children, my cousins Mary Donna, Lee and Nicky. I can imagine once again their memories rekindled by the tragic events at the Upper Big Creek Mine. And as I filter through my thoughts, there is one that lingers for Nicky, as he too became a coal miner, and so did his children. Coal mining is generational.
West Virginia is almost heaven! Life is old there, and the hills and mountains are beautiful. But beneath the beauty of the hills and the peace in the valleys, the mythology of coal mining continues: descending, digging and sometimes dying. In coal towns life comes full circle, sometimes all too soon.
Josh Napper, a miner killed at the Upper Big Creek Mine, showed his fiance a sealed envelope prior to the recent disaster. “Keep it sealed until something happens to me,” he said. It was addressed to her, his mother, and his 19-month-old daughter. After the confirmation that all the miners had died, his fiance opened the letter. It read, “If anything happens to me I will be looking down from heaven.”