Memorializing the history that continues to repeat

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CARMICHAELS – For the first time in the 51 years, the Hatfields Ferry Power Station was silent during the Robena Mine Memorial Service has been held in Monongahela Township.

Nothing billowed from the stacks of the coal-fired plant, permanently closed in mid-October, as the 39 coal miners who lost their lives at Robena were remembered.

The explosions came Oct. 3, 1962, and again Dec. 6, 1962. The first claimed the lives of two men; Frank Radovich and J.L. Dunham. The latter took 37 more.

Emcee for the service, Edward Yankovich Jr., international vice president of the United Mine Workers District 2, called to task United States Steel Corp. for its lack of acknowledgement of the annual memorial service.

Yankovich said he recently read the transcripts of what took place at Robena in 1962 and it became “painfully clear (to him) that corporate greed and negligence caused,” the tragic events, first at Robena’s Long Shaft and then at its Frosty Run Shaft.

“It angers me more than anything that they’ve failed to recognize the sacrifices these men gave,” Yankovich said. “However, the United Mine Workers of this country will never forget their memories and vows to continue with this ceremony. It will continue to take place every year to mark their passing.”

Daniel Kane, international secretary-treasurer for the United Mine Workers of America, said workers leave much behind when they go off to work. When they don’t return, “How do you make that whole? How do you compensate for that?” he asked.

“One percent of the population controls most of the economy with little or no regard for those building this economy. That needs to stop,” he said, challenging those we vote into power to back laws that will protect workers and return them safe and sound with undiminished health at the end of a work day.

Kane turned the microphone over to United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts. Roberts said he might take some heat for his opening remarks regarding John L. Lewis, the revered labor organizer who fought for safety legislation in the United States. Standing with Roberts were Kane, Yankovich, Father Rodney Torbic of the Saint George Serbian Orthodox Church in Carmichaels, and Marlon Whoolery, president of the United Mine Workers of America Local 1980. Roberts said behind the people like Lewis were the people who truly made the United Mine Workers great.

“Today I want to give every rank and file coal miner working, retired and passed and their families thanks. There is no other person like a coal miner,” he said. “I’m so very proud of a union that has the type of membership we have. Every union in this country could stand to have membership like ours has.”

Roberts said Congress has “seen fit to name Dec. 6th Miners’ Day.” He said it was 106 years ago that the Monongah Mine disaster in Fairmont, W.Va., took the lives of hundreds of men. The official record states it was 361 who died. Roberts said that number is believed to be closer to 500 because historically this was a time when fathers would bring sons to work with them and there were others who were also unregistered by the mining company who went underground.

It is typical for mining disasters to take place in the months of November and December becaues of atmospheric pressure, Roberts said. Two weeks ago he was in West Virginia for the 45th remembrance of the Farmington Mine explosion where 78 died.

In an uncharacteristically solemn mood, Roberts said, “All of us come together to remember those who lost their lives some time ago. It is one of the frustrations I have when one of these events occur. There are a lot of them, too many of them.”

Roberts said for two to three days after we hear about how dangerous it is to be a coal miner and Congress talks about doing something, that passes and “then it is up to us again.”

Paraphrasing lyrics from a song by folk artist Anne Feeney, Roberts said. “They just came to work here, they didn’t come to die.”

“They are not just a statistic to us. They had a life. They are not just a statistic for national TV or a book somewhere. Let’s remember them for what they were – wonderful fathers, sons, husbands and great neighbors,” he said. “These were important people to a lot of folks.”

With three weeks to Christmas Roberts asked how a mother tells her children that “dad got killed today” and how does she go on making proper funeral arrangements with no income.

“We should pray for those left behind, too,” he said, telling a story of Dec. 19, 1984, when the Wilberg Mine fire in Utah left 27 dead, including Nannett Wheeler, the first woman to die in a Utah mine. There would be no rescue efforts. The mine fire was out of control and the mine had to be sealed. Roberts said there was some fear that the mine would explode.

“We were going from house to house. The Christmas trees were up. Little kids are in the houses. And, they (the workers) are in the mine, sealed up. What can you say to a mother and her children,” Roberts said. “I felt so useless.”

Twenty years after the Wilberg Mine fire he said he was at a memorial service and a lady came running up to him. Roberts said she thanked him because he got down on the floor to play with her son when her husband died in that mine. A young man standing next to her, now 26-years old, was that little kid.

“Whatever you do, they’ll never forget it. Every time tragedy has come our way we have pulled together and lifted each other up,” he said.

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