It has been called the worst mining disaster in American history. On a gloomy Friday morning on Dec. 6, 1907, an explosion and subsequent fire tore through two coal mines in Monongah, W.Va., killing 362 men and leaving 250 women widowed and more than 1,000 children fatherless.
To honor the women and children left behind by the disaster, Teaching Assistant Professor Gina Martino Dahlia (MSJ, 2007) produced, filmed and narrated an historical documentary, “The Monongah Heroine.”
In April 2008, the film won a national Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts Award. The film was named Best in Category in the Faculty Documentary Competition for Short Film. The film also earned an Accolade Award for Excellence in Historical Videograpy.
When the 1907 Monongah disaster occurred, almost half of the town’s breadwinners were killed, most of them Italian immigrants who came to West Virginia lured by available mining jobs and the promise of inexpensive housing. Dahlia’s family background drew her to work on this project.
Born in Italy, Dahlia’s mother, Rina Martino, came to America to make a better life for herself by marrying Dahlia’s father and starting a family. A native of Marion County, W.Va., Dahlia feels a strong, emotional connection to the Monongah mine victims.
“My grandpa, Sam Martino, was a coal miner for nearly 25 years,” Dahlia said, explaining her interest in the project. Her grandfather narrowly escaped the 1968 Farmington Mine disaster, in which 78 men were killed. “My grandfather wanted to work a double shift that day, but his ride was going home, and so he had to go, as well. That twist of fate saved his life.”
“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,” she added.
Based on that experience, Dahlia decided to step back in time to tell the story of the Monongah disaster from the families’ perspective. She spent four years doing research, gathering archival photos and shooting 25 hours of footage.
Among those interviewed for the film were 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 of one of the widows.
Through the project, Dahlia formed relationships with the people of Monongah and got to know their heritage. She said it is impossible to do an in-depth documentary without being changed by it.
“It’s a huge misconception that in order to be a journalist you have to be removed,” said Dahlia. “You have to be connected to the story to connect with the audience.”