After century, Darr Mine blast still worst in state
Monessen Valley Independent - Monessen,PA,
ROSTRAVER TOWNSHIP - A Rostraver historian said a local mining disaster that claimed the lives of 239 men and teens a century ago is a reminder that we are never far from the gates of eternity. The Rev. Chip Norton was the keynote speaker at the Darr Mine 100th anniversary service Saturday at Olive Branch Baptist Church in Van Meter.
Norton, a former Olive Branch pastor, described for nearly 200 people what it must have been like Dec. 19, 1907, just hours before tragedy struck that not only cut short the lives of the miners but profoundly affected the lives of those left behind.
"The morning started just like any other morning, some men went to work, some stayed home to go to church with their families whie others bustled about the patch town of Van Meter.
"It was getting on toward noon and the noontime meal was on the stove and the tables were being set when the area began to shake, and their lives would be changed forever," Norton said.
The historian said the horrific event brought out the best in many people who helped provide for the women and children who were suddenly left without provisions and social services.
"But God knew and somehow if you could talk to these people who survived, the wives, the children, the neighbors, the friends, you would find stories of the many miracles of provisions, many miracles of deliverance, many miracles of survival, many miracles of faith and strength," Norton said.
"May we remember not just the event, but that these were real people with real cities from where they had migrated, real towns where they lived, real wives who they loved, real children who were the apples of their eyes. May we learn we are never far from the gates of eternity ourselves," said the speaker.
The 11 a.m. service included prayers, the American and Hungarian national anthems, remarks from mining and union officials and representatives from the six sponsoring organizations, and placement of a ceremonial wreath at the nearby cemetery where 71 of the victims are buried in a common grave.
The Rev. Imre Bertalan Jr., executive director of Bethlen Home in Ligonier, said the fallen miners were simple breadwinners made heroes merely through tragedy.
"Emotions are never one dimensional," Bertalan said. "We must always be reminded that human life is more valuable than profits."
The Darr disaster claimed more lives than any mining accident in Pennsylvania history. Nationwide, more than 3,200 miners died in mining-related accidents in December 1907, making it the most deadly month in mining history.
Kevin Stricklin, administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the industry has made great strides in safety since the 1907 disaster at Pittsburg Coal Company's 65-year-old mine.
Stricklin, a native of Wickhaven, said the Miners Act of 1968 gave more teeth to federal inspectors' authority to shut down mines. He said stiffer penalties, better communication to the miners underground and better techniques to ensure a greater likelihood of survival in the event of an explosion were also enacted last year.
"As with any rules and regulations we have, there is typically someone's blood on it that has caused us to change our regulations," said Stricklin. "I can tell you that when you go out to meet with the widow, one miner dying is one too many," he said.
Edward Yankovich, international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, said 100,000 miners have died in mining accidents since the Darr Mine tragedy and 100,000 miners have succumbed to Black Lung disease.
"As we sit here 100 years after the explosion to commemorate and celebrate the industry to which those immigrants from Hungary and all over Europe lent so much to its riches, I think about what they would want me to relay today," he said.
"I believe they would want us to continue the fight for human life and safety. I believe they would want us to embrace them and help them see through the (corporate) greed that tries to use us against them."
Yankovich said the union will continue to honor the spirit of fallen miners and take appropriate action.
Many who attended the service were there to honor their ancestors.
"This was absolutely incredible, a very, very unique and dignified service and wonderfully put together," said Steve Zolock, of Belle Vernon, who attended with his wife Sarah.
Zolock's great-grandfather, John Arva, was a Darr Mine victim. His grandfather, Mike Zolock, took off work that day to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas.
Joann Verin, of Belle Vernon, attended the service with her son, Tyler, a Belle Vernon Area ninth-grader who is writing a story for the "Young Voices" feature in The Valley Independent.
"He just studied this in school last year," Joann Vernin said. "I learned a lot about the tragedy here today."
Rostraver Township Commissioner Ralph Iacoboni presented a proclamation.
"It means a lot to Rostraver to be here and be able to give this proclamation," Iacoboni said. "It is a sad day in that such a disaster happened, but hopefully a lot of reforms in the mining industry have resulted in improvements so that these types of disasters don't happen again."
The American Hungarian Federation spearheaded the memorial service as most of the fallen miners were Hungarian immigrants. It was joined by the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America, the Hungarian Reform Church of America, William Penn Association, the Calvin Synod of United Church of Christ and the Bethlen Communities of Ligonier.
The Rostraver Historical Society coordinated the event locally.
The following also took part: VFW Post 7023 Honor Guard, Perryopolis; Taps by Frazier School District students; Scott Hamilton on bagpipes; and remarks by miner Joseph Sbaffoni.
In 1994, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed an historical marker along Route 981 at Olive Branch Cemetery.