PITTSTON — Area residents took a moment on Sunday to remember the miners who lost their lives in the Knox Mine Disaster 57 years ago.
On Jan. 22, 1959, 12 men died when the Susquehanna River broke into and flooded coal mines near Pittston. Thirty-three other men barely escaped with their lives as water poured into the mines.
Many historians believe that the disaster could have been averted had the Knox Coal Company refrained from digging shafts dangerously close to the river.
As a beautiful wreath was laid at a memorial in front of the Baloga Funeral Home, Taylor Baloga, 17, standing with her family, looked on quietly and respectfully, hoping to absorb a bit of the history that defines her family.
Baloga’s great-grandfather, John Baloga, was lost in the disaster.
Remembering, she said, is very important.
“I think it’s important to reflect back on history and not to forget it,” she said.
Her parents, John and Susan Baloga, agree.
At the annual event and throughout the year, the Balogas and other family members of the 12 focus on the sense of history and family underscored by the willingness of miners to put themselves in danger in order to provide for their families.
“I’ve heard that my great-grandmother warned my great-grandfather that they were mining too close to the river,” said John Baloga. “The company told him if he wanted to continue to feed his family, he would need to keep working, putting himself in harm’s way.”
Historian Robert Wolensky, who spoke at the memorial service, said the tragedy was a result not of a natural disaster, but of corporate corruption.
“Companies knew they were going beyond boundaries and against regulations,” he said. “This was pillaging at the expense of the lives of miners.”
Wolensky said the Knox Coal Company was affiliated with organized crime.
With mining companies needing to mine deeper, thinner veins in 1959, many were cutting costs in order to remain profitable, according to Wolensky.
Criminal proceedings following the incident resulted in the indictment of 10 men. Six would serve jail time.
Some families did receive compensation after protracted legal proceedings.
The Knox Mine Disaster Wolensky said “was the beginning of the end” for deep coal mining in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Rev. Peter Tomczak, assistant pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church in Pittston, said it is important to be grateful for the men who lost their lives while attempting to support their families.
“We continue to gather here to remember them,” he said. “Those 12 men are a living legacy to their families, many of whom are here today.”
Black lung disease, he said, also took many hard-working men from their families.
Tomczak prayed that the souls of the men lost would rest in peace and also that their love would live on in those who remained, those who continue to remember.
Reach Geri Gibbons at 570-991-6117 or on Twitter @TLGGibbons