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WVU journalism professor's Monongah Mine disaster documentary to air on WVPBS

A West Virginia University P.I. Reed School of Journalism (SOJ) professor’s documentary about the 1907 Monongah Mine disaster.

A West Virginia University P.I. Reed School of Journalism (SOJ) professor’s documentary about the 1907 Monongah Mine disaster will air on West Virginia Public Television at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 6 – the 100-year anniversary of the catastrophe.

The SOJ will hold a special preview of the 30-minute documentary, “The Monongah Heroine,” at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 5 in 205 Martin Hall. The premiere will be open to the public.

Professor Gina Martino Dahlia, acting chairman of the school’s broadcast news program, produced, filmed and narrated the historical documentary.

The film focuses on the struggles and triumphs of the widows and children left behind from the disaster, still dubbed the worst mine disaster in U.S. history with 361 men and children losing their lives.

“My grandpa, Sam Martino, was a coal miner for nearly 25 years,” said Dahlia, explaining her interest in the project. “He narrowly escaped the Farmington Mine disaster of 1968. My grandfather wanted to work a double shift that day on Nov. 19, 1968, but his ride was going home, and so he had to, as well. That twist of fate saved his life.”

Farmington’s Consol No. 9 Mine, ironically just a few miles down the road from Monongah, exploded on Nov. 20, killing 78 men. The next day, television crews flooded Dahlia’s tiny neighborhood, relaying follow-up explosions and suspenseful rescue attempts to the nation’s living rooms. Because of her grandfather’s experience, Dahlia felt a close connection to the 1907 Monongah Mine disaster. She was particularly interested in learning how the 250 widows and 1,000 children left behind survived.

“After the 1968 mine explosion, I saw how hard my grandmother struggled to keep everything together, even though she knew my grandfather still had to go underground to make a living,” said Dahlia. “The town of Monongah is in Marion County, and being a Marion County native, I also felt a sense of community to tell the story in my own neighborhood.”

Dahlia’s film depicts the historical events of the mine disaster and its effects on the community of mostly immigrant workers who came to West Virginia, lured by available mining jobs and the promise of inexpensive housing. When the Monongah disaster occurred, almost half of the town’s breadwinners were killed, most of them Italian immigrants.

Over a four-year period, Dahlia went through hundreds of photos and conducted countless interviews, collecting 25 hours of footage for the film. “It was a very long and tedious process,” Dahlia said. “I discovered along my journey that it’s the people who breathe life into a story that’s 100 years in the making, and I made some wonderful friendships along the way.”

Among those interviewed for the film are a well-known mining expert, a photojournalist, an author and local mining historian, Italian immigrants, a genealogist and poet, a vice president of Calabria, Italy, and a son whose mother was one of the widows of the Monongah Mine disaster. Dahlia said after talking to all of the sources involved, her story began to take shape.

Last year, a committee of Marion County officials and residents erected a marble statue depicting “The Monongah Heroine” near the Town Hall in Monongah.

“With the completion of that statue, my story had a beginning, middle and end,” said Dahlia. “There have been quite a few films done on the men who lost their lives in the mining disaster, but none about the women of that time, how they survived. I hope this film pays homage to their spirit and their strength. They were the true heroes of the disaster.”