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Shepherdstown man's book chronicles 1907 mine disaster

New work tells story of nation's worst industrial accident

New work tells story of nation's worst industrial accident

February 05, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Initial reports claimed that 362 miners died, but that number had been questioned.

Davitt McAteer was curious, too, and for 30 years, he conducted research into a set of explosions at the Monongah coal mine near Fairmont, W.Va.

McAteer, a Shepherdstown attorney who is considered an international expert in mine safety, also examined interviews with victims, survivors and descendants of those who were killed.

McAteer sifted through U.S. Bureau of Mines information and newspaper interviews and reaches the conclusion in a new book that nearly 500 miners died in the catastrophe at Monongah mine on Dec. 6, 1907.


The explosions and resulting deaths are considered to represent the worst industrial accident in U.S. history, and McAteer details the story in his book, "Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History."

So why has it taken so long for the facts to get out?

For one thing, a fire boss who worked in the mine and who questioned the number of miners who had been killed did not give interviews on the disaster until 1962, McAteer said.

Fire boss Lester Trader was interviewed by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, McAteer said.

Then, it took piecing the story together through the string of facts, something that McAteer hinted not everyone would be excited about doing.

"It takes a nut to look at that information," McAteer said. "It's a piece lost to history for a moment."

McAteer will talk about his book Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Shepherd University's Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. A book-signing and reception will follow.

McAteer has a extensive background in mine safety expertise. McAteer, who also lives just outside of town, worked with consumer advocate Ralph Nader to enact a landmark 1969 law known as the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

During the 1970s, McAteer led the safety and health programs of the United Mine Workers of America and started the Occupational Safety and Health Law Center.

From 1994 to 2000, McAteer was assistant secretary of Mine Safety and Health in the U.S. Department of Labor under President Clinton.

When the Sago mine disaster occurred Jan. 2, 2006, McAteer produced two reports on that accident for Gov. Joe Manchin. McAteer testified before Congress about mine conditions, which resulted in the passage of the Miner Act of 2006.

McAteer currently is vice president of Sponsored Programs at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va., and he works some days out of his law office on German Street.

McAteer said there are a number of factors that relate to the problem of pinning down how many people died at Monongah. Among them is there was no reliable system of recording how many miners would be in a mine at one time, McAteer said.

Also, some bodies were taken home and not counted, McAteer said.

The explosions occurred when runaway coal cars plunged into the mine.

McAteer describes in the acknowledgments of his book how he could not let go of the story of Monongah. He said students at Fairmont University helped in the research, and there were employees in the U.S. Department of Labor who were key sources in regarding the agency's materials.

McAteer, who has relatives from the area where the mine operated, included photographs in the book, including one that shows coffins laid out on the main street of Monongah after the explosions and a crowd that gathered around covered bodies.

If you go

What: Shepherdstown-area resident and international mine safety expert Davitt McAteer will talk about his new book, "Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History,"

When: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Where: Shepherd University's Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at 213 N. King St. in Shepherdstown.

Online: The book can be ordered online at or by calling 1-866-WVUPRESS.

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