Those lost in Robena Mine disaster remembered

Source: Herald Standard

MASONTOWN – Each coal miner killed in an accident or by black lung has a ripple effect that impacts countless others, UMWA International President Cecil Roberts told the crowd gathered on a chilly Thursday morning to remember the Robena Mine disaster 56 years ago.

Roberts pointed to the estimated 250,000 miners who have died over the years in mine disasters or from medical problems, and then extrapolated that figure to show the millions of relatives and friends who felt the loss.

At Robena, the watches on the 37 men killed Dec. 6, 1962, stopped ticking between 1:03 and 1:06 p.m., signifying the time of the underground blast near the memorial site positioned along Route 21 in Monongahela Township just west of Masontown. The explosion is thought to have been caused by a buildup of methane gas that was ignited by a spark from mine equipment.

Families gathered outside the mine on a frigid afternoon that day waiting for word on the fate of the workers inside.

“The very next morning, a wife became a widow,” Roberts told the crowd gathered for the memorial. “The next morning, a child had lost a father.”

One of those families that felt the loss was that of Judy Package, whose second cousin, Albert Bronakoski, was the youngest to die in the explosion. Bronakoski, a recent Mapletown grad, was just 18 and working a temporary job in the mine while on break while studying engineering at Penn State University. As one of the newest hires, he drew straws with another man to see who would work in the mine that day, Package recalled.

Package remembers the anguish the tragedy caused Bronakoski’s parents, Marcella and Adam, and the rest of the family.

“My mother was extremely upset because she was really good friends with Albert’s family,” she said.
Package, of Fayette City, was also 18 when Bronakoski died in the mine. She often thinks about how she has been able to enjoy adulthood while Bronakoski was struck down so young.

“I think it’s nice that they still remember the miners. And it helps me remember Albert,” Package said. “It just makes you feel bad you’re still around and he was so young. He didn’t get to experience life.”

The disaster was a rallying call for mine safety, and Dec. 6 was later recognized as National Miners Day. As he has in past years, Roberts used the memorial service as an opportunity to remember the dead, while also promoting important union initiatives, such as guaranteed health-care benefits and pensions for retirees.

Roberts stalked through the crowd giving a fiery speech in which he noted the union’s successful efforts to encourage the federal government two years ago to protect health-care benefits for retirees. He said the work has “saved lives,” as the union now is turning its attention to finding a long-term solution to fix its ailing pension fund.

“Sometimes I get angry when I put these things in perspective,” Roberts said of bankrupt coal companies that have been able to walk away from their pension obligations. “And maybe you should, too.”

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 Local 1980 President Marlon Whoolery. He also echoed the need for the union to persist in its push for retirement benefits.
“We want to fight for today’s miner and yesterday’s retiree,” Whoolery said.

Ed Yankovich, who is retiring later this month as UMWA International’s vice president for District 2, served as master of ceremonies. He noted the 12 rescue teams from across that region that ventured into Robena to save lives, but only recovered bodies after six days of searching.

“When these things happen, brave men come to the rescue,” Yankovich said. “Let’s not just remember the men who died. Let’s think of these brave souls who tried to rescue those men. They’re the heroes of the labor movement.”