By Kathy Cannon Wiechman
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Thirteen-year-old Lucia Riccardi took off Pio’s cap and shook loose her braids. She slipped off the trousers that also had been her brother’s, rolled them, and stood on the outhouse seat to slide them into their hiding place above the rafter. She stepped into the coldness of her petticoat and skirt, ran her hand down the fabric, and tried to wish away the wrinkles.
Grabbing a tin pail, she hurried to the hydrant at the end of the street. Fetching water was a chore that gave her a chance to wash the guilt from her face and hands before going home.
“Lucia!” Francesca was out of breath from running, and her red nose dripped in the wintry air.
Lucia looked up from scrubbing coal dust from her hands.
“Oh, Lucia.” Francesca’s voice was almost a sob. “Mama came to school. She knows you weren’t there.”
“What did you tell her?” Lucia kept prying black grit from under her fingernails.
“I said nothing. I swear on Papa’s grave. Miss Vernon’s Italian and Mama’s English are not so good. But Mama will want to know why you weren’t there. And she will want to know where you were.”
Lucia had gotten good at telling lies this past year. Only Francesca and Pio knew the truth. And Father D’Andrea. But priests weren’t allowed to reveal what they heard in confession.
The two girls lugged the heavy water pail to their small house. They had lived in a bigger house last year, back when they had needed more room.
“Is the coal dust gone?” Lucia asked.
“Don’t worry,” Francesca said, rubbing at a spot near Lucia’s ear. “The dust is in the air all over town. It would be more telling to have your face clean.”
As they opened the door, a voice called from the rocking chair, “Vincenzo?”
“It’s Lucia and Francesca, Nonno, your granddaughters.”
“Of course you are my granddaughters,” Nonno said, “but you, Lucia, you look like your Uncle Vincenzo.”
“And like Papa. And like you,” Lucia said. All five of Nonno’s sons had had the Riccardi face, the face with the strong chin and deep-set eyes. It often haunted her to see Nonno’s eyes, so like Papa’s laughing ones—but without the laugh.
Papa had brought his family to America when Pio and Lucia were babies. Two years ago, he’d convinced his brothers and Nonno to join them. They could make good wages and eventually send for their families.
All five of Nonno’s sons were gone now. Papa and his brothers. Dead. One year ago tomorrow on the feast of St. Nicholas.
December 6, 1907. Lucia would never forget that day. Nor would anyone else in Monongah, West Virginia.
It had begun as a festive Friday morning, so filled with plans for the evening’s feast that the walls could scarcely contain them. Lucia scurried to get ready for school after finding a penny from St. Nicholas in the toe of her shoe, a special blessing even at twelve.
She struggled to concentrate in class when unexpected thunder rumbled. She hadn’t seen rain clouds. But the rumble grew louder, and Lucia felt it in her feet, felt it rumble right up her legs and grab hold of her heart. The classroom quaked, and Miss Vernon’s chalk rolled off her desk.
Everyone jumped up and raced from the building, emerging into daylight to stop and gape.
At the edge of the West Fork River, both entrances of Mine Number Six sent explosions of reddish-brown smoke into the air. Fire chased the smoke higher and higher. And, as readily as one hiccup follows another, Mine Number Eight belched its own black smoke and flames. More blasts rained dust and debris into the West Fork’s water, some pieces as large as trees.
Lucia and Pio rushed to the mine, where the ground still quaked and ash rained down around them. Papa and their uncles had worked inside Number Eight. One month earlier, Nonno would have been with them, but he had lost three toes under a mine car’s wheels, and his foot was still healing.
Crowds gathered around the now cavernous opening of Number Eight when the explosions finally quieted.
Rescuers ventured in, even as deadly fumes of afterdamp seeped from the mine. The fumes drove back every attempt.
Lucia clung to Mama. The family stood as close to the mine entrances as they were allowed—and waited. Hundreds stood. All day. All night. Just stood. Watching. waiting.
When the burned-out mines had been ventilated with huge fans, hundreds of charred bodies were carried out. Lucia would never forget the terrible screams from the families, from Mama—and from herself.
The First National Bank became a temporary morgue. Nonno identified four sons, but Vincenzo was never found.
Ceaseless music of Requiem Masses pulsed from Our Lady of Pompeii Church. Lucia cried for Papa. Everyone cried. Even Father D’Andrea, as he prayed the Latin words for Grant them eternal rest, wiped tears on the sleeve of his alb.
The newspaper called it the worst mine disaster in the whole country—ever.
After his sons’ funeral, Nonno came inside and sat in his rocking chair. He didn’t rock, just sat in that chair, as still as death itself.
He brought his chair with him when they moved from the large house, which they could no longer afford without wages of five men. This smaller one was possible only because Pio quit school and went into the mines. How Mama hated letting another Riccardi son become a miner. But they needed money to live.
Now one year later, Pio still worked in the mines and Nonno spent every day in that chair—not rocking.
Today Francesca spoke soothing words to Nonno, while Lucia looked for Mama, silently honing her lie about why she hadn’t been in school. But Mama wasn’t there.
The door burst open, and Pio rushed inside.
“Vincenzo?” Nonno called out.
“It’s Pio,” Francesca told him.
Pio grabbed Lucia’s sleeve and pulled her into the kitchen. “They’re here,” he whispered. “They came by train to Fairmont. Father D’Andrea went to meet the interurban cars.”
She hugged him until she wore coal dust from his clothes.
“Father D’Andrea will bring them in time for St. Nicholas,” Pio said.
Before Lucia could wipe the smile from her face, Mama stormed into the house, her temper steaming in the cold air that followed her from outside.
“Vincenzo?” Nonno called out.
Francesca patted his hand. “Only Mama,” she said.
Lucia braced herself, but her smile would not disappear.
“Six stores in this town, and none has the right cheese for filling the cannelloni!” Mama fumed. “And you, Lucia, you stand there like the cat with canary feathers on your face. A girl who lies has no reason to smile.”
Lucia stood in front of her mother, within reach of Mama’s hand. The time for lying was past.
“I haven’t been to school for months, Mama.” Her voice came out weak. She swallowed hard and put strength into her next words. “I work the picking tables.”
Mama’s face went pale. “They let girls sort coal now? They want to kill my whole family? Your dear Papa was not enough? His brothers were not enough? An old man in a chair waiting for the son who will never return is not enough?” Mama’s voice dissolved into sobs.
Lucia reached around Mama’s shoulders. “They do not treat me as a girl,” she said. “I wear Pio’s old clothes and work the picking tables with the young boys. The bosses never look at the Italians anyway. As long as I do my work, nobody cares.”
Mama covered her face and shook her head.
“I do a good job, Mama. I earn money to finish what Papa and Uncle Vincenzo began.”
“Vincenzo?” Nonno called.
“Vincenzo sent money to Italy to bring his wife and children here. I sent my pay, too. Maria still wanted to come, even after he died.”
“Vincenzo?” Nonno called louder. Francesca tried to calm him, but he brushed her aside.
Francesca’s hand stopped still where Nonno’s arm had been. Pio’s mouth dropped open, and Lucia’s eyes didn’t blink a single blink, as Nonno rose from that chair and pulled open the door.
Father D’Andrea stood in the doorway, and Nonno ushered him inside. He was followed by a woman with two small children.
“Maria!” Mama shouted, and the younger woman fell into Mama’s arms.
“And Angela.” Father D’Andrea pushed forward a timid little girl. Angela! The daughter Vincenzo had left behind in Italy! This was the day Uncle Vincenzo had waited for, but not lived to see.
“And Renato.” Maria’s arms tried to circle her darting toddler.
“Vincenzo!” Nonno said, and snatched up his grandson.
“Vincenzo’s son,” Maria told him, “his son born after he sailed for America. Renato.”
Tomorrow they would take Maria to visit the uncles’ graves. Tomorrow Mama would dole out Lucia’s punishment for missing school. Lucia didn’t think it would be severe, but she was certain the picking tables would be short one worker come Monday. She patted her pocket. Tomorrow Vincenzo’s children would find pennies in their shoes.
Tonight there was talking and hugging, and everyone heard the creak of Nonno’s rocker as he sat with Renato in his lap. “Renato,” he said.
* * *
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Riccardi family is fiction, but the 1907 Monongah mine disaster remains the worst industrial accident in US history.
Most of the miners were immigrants, and the largest number of immigrants were Italian.
Father D’Andrea was real, as was Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church, the first Italian church in West Virginia history. The wood church still stands in Monongah.
The explosions were likely caused by the ignition of coal dust and methane gas. Just before the first explosion, a train of mine cars got hung up on an elevated trestle and careened back down the hill into Mine Number Six. This was the probable cause, but speculation has offered other possibilities for the ignition.
Like the fictional Vincenzo, some miners were never found. Some bodies were too mutilated to be identified. Other bodies were blown apart and buried in rubble deep inside the mines.
The practice of off-the-payroll helpers working in the mines has prevented the exact number of dead from being determined, but estimates vary from just under 400 to more than 550.
In spite of the tremendous loss, both mines reopened within two months.