Robena remembered: 55 years later

Source: Herald Standard 

Fifty-five years later, Marcella Sarson’s voice still wavers when she considers the lives she saw torn apart at Robena Mine.

“It still is a very brutal thing to face,” Sarson says.

First for Sarson and her parents came the drive through bitter cold from Bobtown to a Robena lamp house while rescue crews dug for trapped miners, including her 18-year-old brother, Albert Bronakoski.

Then came several days of waiting there — and not going home.

“They didn’t give us much information,” Sarson recalls.

The first body was sighted at 4 a.m. on Dec. 8, some 39 hours after the methane gas explosion approximately two miles from the Frosty Run Shaft.

“They kept digging,” Sarson, 75, remembers.

The large room in the mine building at Frosty Run Shaft housed relatives waiting for some word of their loved ones until the announcement on the morning of Dec. 10 that all 37 men trapped in the mine had been found dead.

Bronakoski was the youngest miner who died in the explosion, a Penn State student studying to be a mining engineer — mining despite his father Adam, a superintendent of the Shannopin mine in Bobtown, forbidding it.

One of the oldest miners to die in the Greene County mine disaster was Alex Marra, a 62-year-old first-generation Italian immigrant who planned to retire the following spring.

“It never worked out,” remembers his son Alex Marra, now 81 himself.

Marra still has a framed copy of the Dec. 7, 1962, Uniontown Morning Herald showing a photo of his older brother Joe, his twin brother Anthony and himself waiting at the disaster scene.

“It’s just as clear today as it was then,” Marra says.

Marra will try to make it to a memorial service Wednesday that will be held by United Mine Workers of America Local 1980 and UMWA International District 2 to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Robena Mine disaster at the Robena Monument off of Route 21, just west of the former Hatfield Power Plant. It’s an annual memorial service that Marra appreciates.

“It never lets you forget,” Marra says. “That’s what I like about it.”

Paul Zvolenski Jr., 74, of Palmer will be taking his youngest daughter to the memorial service since she’s never been to one of them. His father, Paul Zvolenski, Sr., was 40 when he perished in the mine, leaving behind a wife and seven children.

“It was a rough Christmas that year,” Zvolenski remembers.


Zvolenski also recalls his father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, saying that something bad would happen at the Robena Mine one day.

“He always said that place wasn’t safe,” Zvolenski says.

UMWA International District 2 Vice President Ed Yankovich said that greater mine safety is a legacy of the Robena Mine explosion, which an investigation released in March 1963 by then-Gov. William Scranton found was caused by accumulation of methane gas and coal dust.

“There’s no safety there,” John Zvolenski, brother of Paul Sr. and a 21-year veteran with U.S. Steel, said of the mine in a Jan. 1963 Uniontown Evening Standard story.

“The guys know it’s not as safe as it should be,” George Seiman, a U.S. Steel mechanic, said of Robena in the same story.

An explosion at the Robena No. 2 Mine killed two men and severely injured two others two months prior to the Dec. 6 explosion, caused by friction from falling rocks igniting methane gas.

There were 99,690 recorded coal mining fatalities in America from 1900 through 1962, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, an average of more than 1,500 every year. Dec. 6, 1962, the date of the Robena Mine explosion, was itself a 55-year anniversary of the Monongah, W.V. mining disaster, which in 1907 claimed the lives of 362 men and boys and remains the worst mine disaster in U.S. history per the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Yankovich pointed out that there was no MSHA in 1962, noting that tragedies like the Robena Mine explosion, along with the Farmington, W.V. mining disaster in 1968, helped result in the Federal Coal Mine and Health and Safety Act of 1969, which created a forerunner to MSHA, an organization within the U.S. Department of Labor that enforces compliance with safety standards for miners.

The Robena tragedy reinforced then what at the time was an unacceptable dichotomy of sending men into space while the “wholesale killing” of men in mines continued, Yankovich said.

“Those two don’t correlate,” Yankovich added, noting that miner safety conditions can always be improved.

On Dec. 6, 2011, 49 years after the Robena Mine explosion, MSHA concluded that flagrant safety violations contributed to a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch-South Mine in West Virginia, killing 29 miners and injuring two others. MSHA issued Massey Energy Company 369 citations and orders as well as civil penalties totaling $10.8 million.

“People who leave their house in the morning or evening to go to work should have a very reasonable expectation they will return home.”

Trauma stemming from the Robena disaster touched those among the rescue crews.

Walter Kasievich, Jr. recalls that his father, Walter, Sr., was a mine safety committee member and was gone for several days, pulling miners out.

“He had what I think was a mental breakdown,” Kasievich says of his father, who was also coping with the loss of his own father around the same time as well.

The elder Kasievich had a “minor explosion inside” after the Robena explosion, not working for nearly a year until he “got into the swing of things again.”

Masontown Mayor Toni Petrus recalls waiting to hear from her father, Walter Scarton, who would call her River Avenue home before he’d go in on a rescue trip and after he’d come back.

“God, country and U.S. Steel,” she recalls her mother Ruby saying of her father’s priorities.

Petrus still has a red blanket that the Salvation Army gave to Scarton, who died in 2013, amid the rescue effort.

“They let him bring that home,” Petrus said.


Yankovich hopes for a strong turnout at Wednesday’s memorial service. He’s been master of ceremonies at the annual service since 1989.

“It’s a promise that was kept to honor the guys that lost their lives, to never forget the sacrifices that they gave,” Yankovich said.

Adam Bronakoski died in 2002, four decades after his son Albert was trapped in the Robena Mine. Adam’s obituary emphasized that he “established mining and safety standards that were models in the coal mining industry”at Shannopin.

Adam knew of sacrifices made at the mines his entire life.

“His dad was brought from the mine in a bag and dropped on his family’s porch,” Sarson said.

Adam’s mother Anna was pregnant with him at the time and gave birth to him five months later, a fifth child left fatherless in the Bronakoski family by a Vesta 4 Mine accident.

“It was a very horrendous event,” Sarson remembers, 55 years later.