CARMICHAELS – The waiting became more excruciating with each passing hour 50 years ago for the families and friends who held vigil outside the Robena Mine after an explosion trapped miners inside. As they waited for word on their plight, heavy winds and a blanket of snow impeded efforts above ground.
“We sat over there at that mine for three days,” said Ray Benninghoff, 82, of Rostraver, whose father, Norman A. Benninghoff, was among the dead. “The snow was up to here.” He estimated it was a couple feet deep.
“It is still sad,” added his wife, Mary Benninghoff. “We had two young sons at the time.”
The recovery efforts began about 3 p.m. Dec. 6, 1962.
It was two days into the operation when the body of the first miner was found at 3:15 a.m. The last of the 37 men who perished was brought to the surface at 2:04 p.m. Dec. 11, the final day of the recovery.
Teams from three states, along with 44 Robena miners who escaped the blast, worked more than 100 hours to bring these men to their families.
On a sunny, but chilly, Thursday morning, a capacity crowd spilling outside the tent in front of the Robena Mine Memorial on Route 21 in Monongahela Township remembered that day. Among those in attendance were Robena miners who worked that day and others, like the Benninghoffs, who lost loved ones.
Tears fell as a roll call of the deceased was read aloud and United Mine Workers dignitaries spoke of the loss.
UMWA International Vice President Edward Yankovich Jr. said the sadness and holes in the hearts of these miners’ loved ones can never be filled. Yankovich said even as they gathered Thursday, 50 years after Robena, a miner was missing after an accident last week at the Robinson Run Mine’s Preparation Plant impoundment in Harrison County, W.Va.
Dan Kane, secretary treasurer of the UMWA, talked about the many years it took for legislation to be put in place to protect miners, yet problems still exist.
“All we have is each other. They will take our labor, our sweat, or blood and our lives if we let them,” Kane said. “We have to say no more. One fatality is unacceptable. One injury is unacceptable.”
Kane called on all union workers to stick together.
“United we stand and divided we fall. A wrong to one is a wrong to all,” he said, recalling past slogans. “They are trying to turn the working class against each other. They earn their living from what we do.”
As UMWA International President and keynote speaker Cecil Roberts took the podium, he reminded those in attendance they were expressing their rights of free assembly and free speech by gathering there. He shared a quote by the late labor leader, John L. Lewis, who fought for safety legislation for coal miners.
“He said, ‘Coal has been splattered by the blood of too many miners, and that same coal has been washed by the tears of too many widows,” Roberts said. He continued to speak of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s trip into an Ohio coal mine.
“They asked her, ‘First lady, what do you think needs to happen here?’ She said there were two ways to protect miners: legislation or unionization. We could stand for a few more officials at high levels saying we need more legislation and unionization,” Roberts said, noting there was not a single federal law that protected coal miners when the blasts ripped through Robena in 1962.
“It was a little past lunchtime when it happened. The kids had probably just gone back to class and were in eager anticipation of Christmas,” he said. “I bet the widows can tell you what was in the bucket they packed for them that day because it was the last bucket they packed. The tree was up in the living room and maybe some presents were already under it.”
Instead of planning Christmas dinners and wrapping gifts, families were making funeral arrangements and wondering how they would go on without their husbands, fathers, sons and grandfathers, Roberts said.
“These are real people we are talking about, loved by family, friends and neighbors. They walked this earth. And we come back, 50 years later, and if you come back next year we will still be standing here,” he said. “They did not die to us. We love them then and we still love them.”
One hundred seventy men were in the Robena Mine at the time of the explosion that witnesses said knocked down men who were working more than two miles away.
It is believed to have been caused by a buildup of methane gas, resulting from a temporary shutdown of ventilation fans. The gas was ignited by a spark from mine equipment, possibly one of the fans being turned back on but one will never know as the only eyewitnesses perished in the blast.