Walter Slovekosky knew something was terribly wrong 20 years ago Sunday when the headlights of his electric mine locomotive began blinking wildly 400 feet underground in Consolidation Coal Co.'s No. 9 mine.
"I kept trying to call a foreman on the trolley phone to find out what was going on," Slovekosky said. "I waited and I waited. But no one answered me."That's when I told my buddy, `Let's get out of here. There's something bad wrong.' But we didn't know how bad."
Slovekosky, 70, and his brakeman were among 21 miners who made their way out of the smoky, flame-filled labyrinth after the first of a series of methane explosions rocked the mine at 5:25 a.m. on Nov. 20, 1968. Methane gas, the major component of natural gas, is a constant threat in coal seams.
Seventy-eight died in the explosions and fires, which set in motion the landmark federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act passed by Congress the next year.
"You live through one of those nightmares, I'll tell you, you never forget it," said Slovekosky, who planned to mark the anniversary with a prayer Sunday at a black stone memorial to the dead miners.
Coal mining has been one of the nation's most hazardous industrial occupations. Since the turn of the century, more than 20,000 miners have died in accidents in West Virginia alone.
Twenty major explosions and many more minor ones rocked the mine's 100 miles of tunnels for nine days.
The explosions threw the shaft's elevator carriage into the air. Concrete blocks from the lamp house were hurled into the parking lot, crushing parked automobiles. Smoke billowed 150 feet into the air.
A motel operator in Fairmont 12 miles away felt the blast and thought the back of his motel was blowing up.
"The coal company wanted to seal the mine," Slovekosky said. "They knew the situation was hopeless. But the widows kept screaming, `You can't seal it. You can't seal it.' "
Finally, they sealed the mine on Nov. 30, 1968, to extinguish the fires feeding on methane and coal. But officials of Pittsburgh-based Consolidation Coal vowed that all 78 bodies would be recovered.
The mine was reopened and recovery operations began in September 1969.
"Sometimes, I still lie in bed at night and think about it. We know some of them didn't die instantly," Slovekosky said. "We found the miners sitting with their lunch pails open, like they were just waiting to be rescued.
"You wonder what would be going through your mind if you were sitting down there and you knew you were going to die?"
But after Consolidation Coal spent nearly 10 years and $11 million, the search was abandoned in April 1978 with 19 men still missing because of deteriorating working conditions, including water seepage.
Millions of tons of coal will remain unmined because of federal and state orders, and especially because of a miners' tradition against taking coal from a mine when miners' bodies are still inside.
"All us widows tried to make them get all the men out," said Sara Lee Kaznoski, whose husband, Pete J. Kaznoski Sr., is among those entombed in the mine. "I still feel they could have recovered all those men and given them a decent burial." She and six other widows eventually agreed to accept the company's $10,000 settlement offers, plus joint title to more than 250 acres of land.
"It was a long war with many battles, don't think it wasn't," said Kaz-noski, who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "We got some laws passed and did a lot for the families of other miners, even though it was too late for us."
Slovekosky blamed the explosion on carelessness.
"They've never pointed a finger at anyone, but what's the point," he said. "It's over. A lot of people have died or moved away. The problem was people were willing to take chances. It's like driving a car. You keep taking chances, somebody's going to get you, sooner or later."