ArtsLink: Thoughts on 3-Year Anniversary of Upper Big Branch Disaster Shaped by Farmington Disaster of '68

By Jason Young on April 05, 2013 from A&E Blog via Connect-Bridgeport.com

The last theatre project that I was involved in at college was an ethnographic research based original play based upon the 1968 mine explosion in Farmington, West Virginia.
 
Three years ago I was asked to write a feature for the Maroon & White, a Fairmont State Alumni publication, which spoke to how my work on the Farmington project is has shaped the way I am processing the (at the time) current Upper Big Branch explosion.
 
Today, April 5, 2013, is the three-year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. My thoughts from three years ago are shared below.
 
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At approximately 5:30 a.m. on November 20, 1968, a large explosion rocked the Consol No. 9 coal mine north of Farmington and Mannington, West Virginia. At the time, 99 miners were inside. Over the course of the next few hours, 21 miners were able to escape the mine, but 78 were still trapped. All who were unable to escape perished; the bodies of 19 of the dead were never recovered.
 
Three years ago that was all I knew about the mining disaster that took place in Farmington, West Virginia. That is not the whole story.
As a native West Virginian born to a coal miner’s daughter and reared by a father who daily donned a blue collar stained with the sweat of the mining industry, it did not strike me as unfortunate that I was basically ignorant to the actual stories behind a major event that shaped this area, state, and nation. I was wrong.
 
In the spring of 2008 I was invited to join the creative team for Fairmont State University School of Fine Arts ethnographic theatre project, “Remembering No. 9”.  The project’s intent was to create a detailed account of the mine disaster by conducting multiple forms of research, primarily one-on-one interviews, and then presenting the research by composing an original piece of theatre.
 
After hearing the tales of so many people who were a part of the community of Farmington in the late 1960s it was made very clear that the story we were setting out to tell was not to be focused on the mere factual data of the event. Dates and places aren’t the story and never will be. The people and their memories will forever be the story.
 
            The pastor who ministered with presence for eight grueling days and nights.
 
            The wife whose last memory of her husband was a laughter-filled slow dance around their living room.
 
            The widow still wracked with grief over her hand in her husband’s career choice.
 
            The photographer who remained removed from the horror of the situation by staying behind his camera lens.
 
            Wives who lost husbands. Sons who lost fathers. Daughters who lost both.
 
A tapestry of tales told for preservation and posterity. As we sat and listened to memory after memory, I was struck by how few facts were recounted. When your world seems to stop turning, you don’t remember what time it was, you remember what the room you were standing in smelled like.
 
Yet in the present tense we focus on the facts.
 
Forty days ago I sat glued for hours on end staring at pictures of a Raleigh County coal mine. The television was broadcasting press conferences that possessed spine-chilling similarities to pictures and videos I had seen of similar press conferences from almost fifty years ago. Maps plastered to a wall. Too many microphones to count. Weary-eyed important people dodging difficult questions.
 
I didn’t care about what the media was telling me. As the hours of broadcast coverage went on, my stomach grew tighter and increasingly upset. I wanted to know where the families had gathered. I wanted the names of the people who were serving hot meals. I longed to see a genuine embrace, a forced smile, a single tear.
 
I suddenly realized how much this project had changed me. How much it had opened my eyes to the importance of every moment that every human lives. How much it had forever bonded me to the people who make up the coal camps of yesterday and today.
 
In one press conference it was remarked, “We haven’t invented any new ways to kill our miners.” That is exactly right. But I believe those of us involved with the “Remembering No. 9” project may have found a new way to honor them.
 
So here is what I know…
 
At approximately 3:27 p.m. on April 5, 2010, a large explosion rocked Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners were killed in an explosion 1,000 feet underground.
 
This is not the whole story.


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