Italians arrive to honor immigrants killed in 1907 Monongah mine blast

Remembering their countrymen

Joseph D'Andrea's anger grew as he stood in a West Virginia cemetery and looked at the neglected graves of 171 Italians who died in the nation's deadliest coal mine explosion.

More than 75 years had passed since Dec. 6, 1907, the day an explosion rocked two mines in Monongah, W.Va., extinguishing the lives of Mr. D'Andrea's countrymen. The year was 1985 and harsh weather had toppled many of the tombstones, rendering them illegible.

So, Mr. D'Andrea, a retired teacher from Moon who served as the Italian consul in Pittsburgh until 1996, began to document the deaths of these men and boys, whose hopes of a new life in America died in a dark hole.

On numerous trips to his native Molise, a region in central Italy that lost 87 men in the disaster, Mr. D'Andrea had little patience for civil servants who were reluctant to fish out old birth and death certificates from large, heavy volumes stored in the attics of civic buildings.

"Bureaucrats!" he says, spitting out the word like an epithet. "What does it mean to them -- Monongah? I see children 12- to 15-years-old who died in the coal mine. I see fathers and sons. I cannot let them go," he said over an afternoon espresso last week in his dining room.

Commemoration Events

Tomorrow's commemoration of the fatal mine explosion that killed 361 people starts at 10 a.m. in Monongah's town square with prayers, singing of the national anthem and the hymn, "Amazing Grace."

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield will bless the new bell, a gift from the Italian region of Molise, which lost 87 men in the disaster. At 10:30 a.m., the entire state of West Virginia will observe a moment of silence because this is roughly the time of the explosion.

A noon Mass in memory of the dead miners will be offered at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Monongah, followed by a 1:15 p.m. procession to the cemetery.

Bishop Bransfield will bless the new granite marker sent by the Italian government and Franco Danieli will lay a wreath in the cemetery. A 3 p.m. reception for dignitaries and the public follows in The Falcon Center at Fairmont State University in Fairmont, W.Va.

Tomorrow, Mr. D'Andrea's persistence will bear fruit as a large group of Italian government officials, diplomats, two Italian television crews and 300 people from Canada, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey and Chicago arrive in the small northern West Virginia town to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster and demonstrate what the fallen men of Monongah mean to them.

These visitors will listen as a bell, cast at the Marinelli Foundry in Agnone, Italy, and installed in Monongah's town square, is blessed by Bishop Michael J. Bransfield and tolls seven times (for the 100th anniversary year 1907-2007). Monongah middle school children will read the names of the dead aloud. After a memorial Mass, visitors will gather in the cemetery, where a large dark granite marker has been installed to honor all of the 361 men and boys who perished.

The Italians who died in the mine disaster hailed from central and southern Italy, where honoring the dead with regular cemetery visits is a tradition. In the Abruzzi village of Scanno, for example, widows dressed in black can be found in the cemetery regularly, talking with one another in a ritual that is part mourning, part support group. Often, the women place pictures of their loved ones next to the graves, light candles and tell stories about the people they have lost.

But Mr. D'Andrea, who immigrated to the United States in 1947, also understood the value of honoring the dead and telling their stories.

Peter Argentine, a Mt. Lebanon-based filmmaker who is making a documentary about the mine explosion, praised Mr. D'Andrea's efforts to ensure the Monongah tombstones were righted and restored.

He also lauded Mr. D'Andrea's support of the memorial bell as well as six years of research for a book, "Monongah: 100 Years of Oblivion," which was published in Italian. "Joe has been the force behind all this," Mr. Argentine said.

The Italians have spent their money and time, too. Dr. Stefano Mistretta, consul general for Italy in Philadelphia, said his country's government provided about $70,000 to restore the cemetery's section dedicated to mining victims and install the dark granite marker, which, like coal, is rough around its edges.

The bell in Monongah's town square, a gift from the region of Molise, was cast by the same foundry that produces bells for the Vatican. Michele Iorio, a gentleman who is president of Molise, will spend the day in Monongah.

By mid-afternoon, the delegation will arrive in Fairmont and a reception will be held at Fairmont State University.

As members of the Italian delegation pay their respects, the subject of immigration will no doubt be on their minds.

During the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of Romanian, Asian and African immigrants have flooded into Italy, transforming it "from a country of emigration to a country of immigration,'' Dr. Mistretta said.

"We must constantly study, analyze and verify the emigration of 100 years ago in order to better understand and manage the continual influx of the hundreds of thousands immigrants that arrive in our country," Dr. Mistretta said.

The delegation includes Franco Danieli, minister for Italians Abroad, and Giovanni Castellaneta, Italy's ambassador to the United States. After his visit to Monongah, Mr. Danieli will travel to Philadelphia, where he will attend a one-day conference on Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania. The conference, focused on the Italian-American community in pictures, people and places, gathers together academics as well as half a dozen filmmakers.

According to the conference flier, native Italians and Italian-Americans are forever linked.

"The tie between the two separate but intertwined cultures is clear; the perspective depends on which shore you are standing," the flier said.

The lesson of the Italians' visit, said Carla Lucente, Pittsburgh's current Italian consul, is that "The people are not forgotten. People remember them even if it's 100 years."

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648. First Published December 5, 2007 5:00 AM


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