Families file class action suit over 1968 no. 9 explosion news timeswv.com us electricity supply voltage

At about 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 20, 1968, there was an explosion at the No. 9 mine, sending rolling smoke and flames about 150 feet in the air — the only visible sign of the devastation inside the mine itself where only 21 of the 99 men working the “cateye” shift were able to make it to the surface. Three subsequent explosions happened that day until about 10 p.m., though mine rescue teams continued efforts to try to rescue the 78 men still trapped in the mine.

But by Nov. 28, air samples showed there was no possible way to sustain human life inside the mine, and by Nov. 30, concrete was poured into the openings to seal off oxygen from the mine to stop the raging fires. That sealed the fate of the 78 men still unaccounted for, and the hopes were dashed of friends and family members holding only fleeting possibilities of rescue.

Each year, the United Mine Workers of America organizes a service on the Sunday closest to Nov. 20 where families, friends and supporters gather around a tall, black memorial stone in a remote area near Farmington. The stone lists the names of each of the 78 who perished that fall day.

Methane is an odorless, colorless gas that escapes during the process of mining underground. The suit contends that Consol, doing business under the name of Mountaineer Coal Co. at that site, used four large surface fans, which were required to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Regulations in place at the time of the explosion required that if a fan stopped and ventilation could not be restored within 15 minutes, all power must be shut off within the mine and all miners evacuated.

“If a fan was running, its light on the display board was green. If a fan slowed or stopped, a red light came on and an alarm sounded,” the suit reads. “If a fan was down for more than 12 minutes, the system was designed to cut off all the power in the mine.”

In addition to lights on a panel, each fan produced a recording chart — a pen within a protective box under lock and key drew a line in sync with the function of the fan. Any interruption in the fan would be recorded on the chart because the pen would stop moving, lawyers for the families contend.

In 1990, the Mine Safety and Health Administration released its final report on the explosion 22 years earlier, and reported that ventilation at the mine was inadequate overall and methane gas had built up to about 4 percent before the explosion. The 1990 MSHA report also alluded to the fan monitoring device at Mod’s Run not being functional.

Another 18 years passed before a hand-written memo by Layne, the federal coal mine inspector, was found in 2008, determining that it was not malfunction but intentional tampering with the alarm system of the fan. Class action suit attorneys say that a year later, in 2009, an alleged fan recording chart was found.

In addition to the memo, lawyers have used the date of June 9, 2014, for determining the identity of Kovarbasich, though there is no exact explanation as to why that 2014 date is significant or relevant. And that June date is given for reason why the suit has come before the court almost exactly 46 years after the explosion.

It was some time before Mainella’s body was recovered. Crews re-entered the mine a year after the explosion, and about three years after his death he was found, along with his wedding ring and personal effects, which were given to his widow, Jeanette, who died in 2000.

Though 59 miners’ bodies were found, 19 remain entombed in the No. 9 mine. Among them was Frank Matish, the father of Harrison County Chief Judge James Matish. In 2008, Matish told the Times West Virginian it was his father’s death that led him into the field of law.

And when he started his practice, he handled many wrongful death and workers’ compensation cases because of the life-changing event that happened two days before his 15th birthday. That day he became one of about 200 children who lost their fathers. Matish said he also helped several families who lost miners in the explosion with legal matters over the course of several years.