Greene County mine tragedy recalled, 50 years later
Walter Scarton entered the smoke-filled Robena No. 3 Mine in Greene County with a rescue team 50 years ago — just hours after two explosions ripped through the dark tunnels, trapping 37 miners — and realized their task would be to recover the bodies.
“We did not think we would find anyone alive. It was awful. (The mine) was all tore up. Five-inch (steel) I-beams were twisted like horseshoes,” said 90-year-old Scarton of Masontown, who was a foreman at U.S. Steel Corp.'s Robena Mine when methane gas exploded around 1 p.m. on Dec. 6, 1962, about two miles from the Frosty Run Shaft.
A high concentration of methane that lingered in unventilated areas slowed the search. It took three days for several teams of rescuers working eight-hour shifts to reach the explosion site, Scarton said, and two more days before all the dead were recovered.
“I knew damn near all of them, said Scarton, who worked at Robena for four decades. “Two men were underneath the mantrip” that carries workers to the mine face. “Others were leaning and sitting up against the tunnel.”
As he has done every year, Scarton will attend the annual service to remember the miners' Thursday at the Robena Mine Memorial in Greene County.
The union holds the service “as a reminder of the sacrifice those men and their families endured,” said UMW International District 2 vice president Edward D. Yankovich Jr., whose district covers Pennsylvania.
The Robena Mine was U.S. Steel's first fully mechanized mine in Southwestern Pennsylvania and was considered to be safe, said J. Davitt McAteer, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton.
“U.S. Steel was generally considered one of the best, if not the best, in terms of its health and safety record,” McAteer said.
The U.S. Bureau of Mines found that a deadly combination of methane gas fed by coal dust ignited by a friction spark or electric arc caused the explosions. Robena's three mines were connected by a series of tunnels, and the blasts were so strong that miners working underground 11⁄2 miles away felt them.
Another 133 miners working at Robena No. 3 escaped, according to “A History of Greene County Mining.”
The oldest victim was 62. The youngest was Albert Bronakoski, an 18-year-old Penn State engineering student, who had won a coin toss with a fellow U.S. Steel trainee to see who would work the day shift on Dec. 6.
The tragedy left 65 children younger than 18 fatherless and 34 widows, according to the history booklet.
One 13-year-old who almost lost his father that day was Mike Dulik of Nemacolin, Greene County, the financial secretary of UMW Local 1980, which took over the Robena local union.
John Dulik had been asked to work overtime on Dec. 6 as a machine belt repairman at Robena No. 3. He already had worked an eight-hour shift and, with a snowstorm raging, Dulik turned down the offer.
He was in the shower when smoke billowed through ventilation shafts, signaling trouble below, Mike Dulik said.
“He would have been down there (in the mine). I was lucky, for my dad lived,” Dulik said.
In the close-knit mining communities in Fayette and Greene counties, everyone seemed to know someone affected by the disaster, Dulik said.
While the memorial does not lay blame for the accident, U.S. Steel's denial of the union's request for money to restore the site for the 50th anniversary ceremony created bitter feelings.
“I was disappointed with the stance they had taken in consideration of the men who died in their employ,” said Yankovich, who sent U.S. Steel Chief Executive Officer John Surma a letter asking for the donation.
The monument recognizes all miners — 33 union and four management — who died at Robena, Yankovich said.
“U.S. Steel has done nothing to honor the 37 men,” said Marlon Whoolery, president of UMW Local 1980.
A U.S. Steel spokeswoman declined to comment.
“Robena can really be credited for setting the stage for (more) mine safety regulations,” said McAteer, a Shepperdstown, W.Va., attorney who led UMW health and safety programs in the 1970s.
Some reforms were implemented after Robena, but not a package of new regulations, McAteer said, in part because the disaster did not capture national media attention.
A year before, Pennsylvania had passed new mining regulations, the first in more than 50 years, said Joseph Sbaffoni, director of the state's Bureau of Mine Safety.
But expanded federal safety regulations were not enacted until 78 miners died in an explosion in November 1968 at Consol's Farmington Mine in West Virginia, McAteer said.
“Robena was the impetus for the development of the Mine Safety and Health Act” in 1969, Yankovich said.
The disaster prompted increased mine inspections from just one per year to four, said Michael Sapko, senior research physical scientist at the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research in South Park.
“Robena and Farmington were the bookends” for federal mine safety reforms, along with a May 1968 disaster in Hominy Falls, W.Va., McAteer said. Like an eerily familiar incident at Quecreek Mine in Somerset County 34 years later, the Hominy Falls miners cut into a water-filled abandoned mine, unleashing a torrent that drowned four miners and trapped 19 others for several days.
Prior to 1969, compliance with federal mine safety laws was voluntary, Sapko said.
“The regulations were simply advisory. It was not until 1968 that there were permanent changes in the attitude of the coal mining industry,” he said.
Pennsylvania updated its mine safety regulations in 2009, adding a Mine Safety Board empowered to implement new technology and safety methods without requiring new state laws, said Sbaffoni, who led the rescue effort at Quecreek in July 2002. The technology has helped to change corporate culture to emphasize safety, he said,
“The technology-influenced changes that have gone into mining, and the technology of the mining machines, have made it safer than 50 years ago,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, a Washington-based trade group.
Still, inspections are crucial, Sbaffoni said.
“The best tool as an enforcement agency is an appearance (by the inspector) at the operation,” said Sbaffoni, noting that Pennsylvania has not had an underground coal mine fatality since June 2009.
“Mine safety and health are moving in the right direction,” said Waynesburg native Joseph A. Main, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and a former administrator of the UMW's Health and Safety Department.
Main said the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners in April 2010 “clearly identified that more needed to be done to provide miners with a voice in the workplace, and that MSHA needed to more aggressively use its tools under the Mine Act to enforce the law.”
Clemmy Allen, executive director of the UMW's Mine Technology and Training Center in Greene County, said changes in safety regulations carry a steep price.
“The one thing that hasn't changed, the constant is, every (mine safety) law that's been written is written in someone's blood,” Allen said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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