The scene outside the Monongah mine in West Virginia after the 1907 explosion.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Argentine has made documentaries for 30 years but the story of an explosion that killed 361 men at a mine in Monongah, W.Va., struck a deep chord in his family history.
Two of the Mt. Lebanon filmmaker's great uncles were carpenters who died in industrial accidents. In 1929, Albert Ferrise was working construction for Koppers when a ladder broke on Neville Island. In 1940, while working at the U.S. Steel plant in Hazelwood, Thomas Graziani fell 90 feet from a coal hopper that led to a coke oven.
Mr. Argentine, 52, grew up hearing stories about how these men's deaths altered family members' lives forever. That oral history motivated him to spend a year researching and filming a documentary about the Dec. 6, 1907, explosion in Monongah, the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. (By nationality, the death count was 171 Italians; 52 Hungarians; 31 Russians; 15 Austrians; 11 African-Americans and 85 native-born Americans.)
Mr. Argentine's Italian roots played a part, too. His paternal great-grandmother hailed from a town in Calabria that lost men in the Monongah explosion and his mother's family came from a region south of Rome called Molise.
Last summer, Mr. Argentine's 21-year-old son, Per, a student at Penn State University, traveled to Molise to film townspeople in Duronia, a small mountain top village that lost 34 men in the Monongah mines.
On a visit to Monongah, Per Argentine found one gravestone in the West Virginia cemetery for three Italian brothers killed in the explosion.
"Imagine the mother receiving word that her three sons were all dead," the elder Mr. Argentine said. "I've heard Italian women mourning, and it's a sound that gives you the chills. It's like a dirge and a wailing."
On Dec. 6, a delegation of Italian leaders will visit Monongah to pay their respects to their late countrymen on the disaster's centennial.
Mr. Argentine's half-hour documentary will air that day on West Virginia Public Television. An expanded version of the documentary will air nationally in spring and will include footage of the commemoration ceremonies in Monongah.
To honor their fallen countrymen, Italian officials also have sent a memorial bell to Monongah. The gift of a bell was proposed by Michele Iorio, governor of Molise. Made by the Marinelli Foundry in Agnone, a town in Molise, the bell is 6 feet tall and contains four reliefs showing the United States with a dot for Monongah and a dot for Molise, an image of the explosion and a fourth scene of the West Virginia town's widows.
On Dec. 6, the names of the known dead will be read, and the bell will be tolled and blessed.