Ray Benninghoff was at work at Fischer Body in West Mifflin 55 years ago when he was pulled aside and told his father was one of the miners missing following an explosion at the U.S. Steel Co.’s Robena No. 3 Mine.
Benninghoff left work that day, Dec. 6, 1962, and went to his parent’s home in McClellandtown to comfort his mother.
“It was sad,” said Benninghoff, who was 32 years old then and is 87 now.
“I remember everything about it,” he said. “There was a lot of snow, the weather was really bad.”
Bennington said he doesn’t remember his family having much hope right from the start.
“There were two explosions,” he explained.
The loss of his father, Norman, who was 57 years old, was very hard on his mother, Anna.
“My mother sat in her rocking chair for a year, waiting for my dad to come home,” he said. “My wife, Mary, took care of her.”
Benninghoff was among the many who gathered Wednesday morning at a service held by United Mine Workers District 2 and Local 1980 to honor the 37 miners who died in the Robena explosion. Norman Benninghoff was a good man and a hard worker, his son said. He was a mechanic and had worked at Robena many years. He was also a good friend.
“I lost my best fishing buddies,” Benninghoff said, referring to his father and two others miners who were friends and who also died in the explosion.
The explosion at Robena occurred at 1:03 p.m. and took the lives of members of two continuous mining crews working about two miles from the base of the mine’s Frosty Run Shaft.
According to news accounts, the force of the explosion was so strong it knocked down men working underground more than two miles away. One hundred and seventy miners were in the mine at the time and 133 escaped unassisted.
The explosion 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.
Each year, the UMW holds the memorial service to honor the fallen miners at a granite monument on Route 21 in Monongahela Township, just west of the shuttered Hatfield’s Ferry Power Plant, and to recognize the importance of the men’s sacrifice in the fight for stronger mine safety laws.
“The spirit of the 37 miners who lost their lives in the Robena No. 3 Mine disaster, hardened the resolve of the United Mine Workers of America,” said Levi Allen, UMW international secretary-treasurer, who was the keynote speaker.
Following the disaster, the union made a commitment to strengthen safety laws, a fight that took seven years and was opposed by coal operators, he said. Finally, on Dec. 30, 1969, Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.
“Robena miners were the catalysts in getting that legislation done,” Allen said. “Their sacrifice has paved the way for every single coal miner who is here today to go home at night after a hard day’s work.”
Allen said the union has a duty to these men to continue the fight to preserve safety in the mines.
“It can’t be a passive duty. It requires action, it requires faith, it requires fighting to preserve the rights these men fought for with their blood and with their lives,” he said.
Benninghoff said he has attended the service a number of times over the years and noted that for some years, the weather has been pretty bad. But, he said, he’s glad the service is always held.
During the ceremony, the names of the 37 men who died in the disaster as well as the names of two men who died in another explosion at Robena on Oct. 2, 1962 were read by Marlon Whoolery, Local 1980 president. Ed Yankovich, international vice president for District 2, served as master of ceremonies.