Miners, victims' families recall Robena tragedy on 50th anniversary
John M. Santer's three young sons awoke in the predawn darkness of their Uniontown home on Dec. 6, 1962, to do something they rarely did — bid their father goodbye before he left for work as an assistant foreman at the Robena No. 3 Mine in Greene County.
It was the last time they would see him alive.
About eight hours later, Santer, a 53-year-old lifelong coal miner, and 36 fellow miners who had entered the Frosty Run Shaft of U.S. Steel Corp.'s Robena mine, were dead. They were the victims of two powerful explosions some 650 feet underground at around 1 p.m. It was nearly a week before their bodies were recovered.
“We had a premonition,” something bad would happen at the mine, John Santer, 65. of Uniontown, recalled Thursday following the annual memorial service at the Robena Mine Memorial near Carmichaels.
“I woke up early and went downstairs and got a chance to say goodbye,” said his brother, David Santer, 58, of Wilmington, Del.
Until they got official word that their father had died, “there was hope” that he somehow had survived the explosion because of his mine safety training, David Santer said.
The one-hour service that honors the memory of 39 miners who died at the Robena Mine — 37 of whom perished on Dec. 6, 1962 — attracted about 350 miners, their families and local government officials, the largest turnout for the annual service, said United Mine Workers District 2 International Vice President Edward Yankovich.
Among those at the service, organized by the UMW, were about two dozen family members of the victims and several retirees who worked at Robena when the explosion occurred.
Because so many lost a father, a son or brother in the tragedy, many mining families in the region that year “didn't have a Christmas or a Christmas that was very sad,” Yankovich said.
“There's a sadness and a hole in their heart that can never be filled,” he said.
To make mines safer to prevent a recurrence of such tragedies, the nation needs good mine safety laws, mining companies to obey those laws and for those laws to be enforced, UMW President Cecil Roberts said.
“We're always looking at ways to make improvements. We looked at ways after the 2006 tragedy and the Upper Big Branch,” Roberts said, referring to the Sago Mine disaster in which 12 miners died after an explosion in January 2006 and the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in April 2010.
The Robena explosion was the last major mining disaster in Pennsylvania, said Joseph Sbaffoni, director of the state Bureau of Mine Safety.
“We're working to make sure we never have another one. That's my main goal,” said Sbaffoni of Fayette County.
Despite the passage of time, the service is held annually “because 50 years ago, their families and their union said, ‘ We're never going to forget that tragedy.' Their memories live in our hearts and on our minds,” Roberts said.
One Robena miner who never forgot that day is Charles Karwatsky, 93, of Georges, who said he would have been loading coal in that section of Robena Mine if he had not switched shifts with Samuel Rain, who did not want to work with a crew in another mine section.
“That was my crew. Every one of those men, I could tell you a story about,” said Karwatsky, who left coal mining shortly after the explosion.
None of John and Anna Santer's three sons followed their father's and grandfather's path into the mines.
“We promised our mother we would never be coal miners,” said David Santer, who became an industrial arts teacher because the job involves teaching safety.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252.