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Benwood Marks 100 Years Since Deadly Mine Disaster

A victim is removed from the Benwood Mine air shaft at Browns Run in this photo, courtesy of West Virginia State Archives.

BENWOOD — Sunday marks 100 years since the Benwood Mine Disaster occurred.

On Monday, April 28, 1924, at approximately 7:05 a.m., the Benwood Mine of Wheeling Steel Corporation’s Benwood Works in Benwood, Marshall County, West Virginia exploded, killing all 119 coal miners who were working inside the mine. It remains the third worst coal mine disaster in West Virginia’s history.

The Benwood Mine supplied coal to the Benwood Works of Wheeling Steel Corporation. It had been previously owned and operated by the National Tube Company, which was acquired by Wheeling Steel upon its founding in 1920.

Two explosions in rapid succession occurred in the mine that morning. The first explosion was in a pocket of methane gas. This explosion raised coal dust, which was ignited by a rail spark, lighted match, lantern flame or other source, causing the second, more deadly explosion.

Of the 119 victims, 110 were European immigrants from Poland, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, England, Scotland and Wales. They immigrated to the United States of America during the Third Wave of Immigration approximately between 1880 and 1914. They settled in the mill town of Benwood and the surrounding areas because of abundant industrial and manufacturing job opportunities.

The victims were predominantly of the Roman Catholic faith and parishioners of Saint John Parish, Benwood, and the former Saint Ladislaus Parish, South Wheeling. A total of 71 of the 119 victims were buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Wheeling, which is owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Mass funerals and burials were held at Mount Calvary in early May 1924, and most of the victims were buried in section 12.

The Benwood Mine Disaster forever altered numerous family histories, the effects of which are felt to this day.

One local man whose family on both sides was profoundly affected by the disaster is Joseph Anthony “Joey” Tellitocci, 45, who is a lifelong resident of the Boggs Run neighborhood of Benwood.

Joey Tellitocci is the great-grandson of Benwood Mine Disaster victim Stephen “Steve” Vargo (born Istvan Varga on Aug. 31, 1887, in Szany, Hungary) and his wife, Rozalia “Rose” Varga (1893-1966; maiden name was also Varga), who married in 1913 and were both natives of Szany, Hungary (then part of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary). They were the parents of Joey’s maternal grandmother, Julia Theresa “Julie” Vargo Molnar (1918-1992).

In 1914, Stephen and Rose Vargo immigrated to the United States with their first-born child. Upon their arrival, they settled at the mouth of Boggs Run in Marshall County, West Virginia (annexed to Benwood in 1944). After settling in Boggs Run, they had five more children.

Stephen Vargo felt sick the morning of the disaster and considered not going to work. Back then, though, no work meant no pay, and no pay meant no food for his pregnant wife and their children, so he reported for work as usual. A half hour into his shift, he was dead.

He was buried in Section 9 of Mount Calvary Cemetery, Wheeling, on May 2, 1924, along with the two other Hungarian coal miners killed in the disaster, Ignac (Ignatius) Orban and Sandor (Alexander) Horvath, who were also natives of Szany, Hungary and friends of the Vargo Family.

Joey’s great-grandmother, Rozalia “Rose,” remarried in 1925 to Hungarian immigrant Istvan (Stephen “Steve”) Horvath. They had two children together.

Joey’s maternal grandmother, Julia Vargo, married Anthony Joseph “Tony” Molnar (1913 – 1978) in 1944. They had Joey’s mother, Barbara Ann “Barb” Molnar Tellitocci. Barbara married Joey’s father, Joseph “Joe” Tellitocci, Jr. (1952-2018), in 1973. Joe Tellitocci, Jr.’s paternal grandmother, Italian immigrant Maria “Marie” Olivieri Fana Tellitocci (1891-1962), was first married to Benwood Mine Disaster victim Pasquale Fana.

Pasquale “Patsy” Fana, born January 6, 1882, in Citta Sant’Angelo, Italy, immigrated to the United States in 1904 and eventually settled in Bellaire, Ohio. He was first married to Donnina Carota in 1911, and they had one child together. Pasquale’s first wife and infant child both died of tuberculosis in 1914. In 1917, Pasquale Fana remarried to Joey’s great-grandmother, Maria Olivieri, and they had five children together. He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Bellaire.

Joey’s great-grandmother, Maria, remarried to Joey’s great-grandfather, Italian immigrant Luigi (Louis) Tellitocci. They had three children together, including Joey’s paternal grandfather, Joseph “Joe” Tellitocci, Sr. (1927-1993), who married Joey’s paternal grandmother, Evelyn May Fisher Tellitocci (1928-2021), in 1948.

If the disaster had never occurred, Joey and his siblings, Travis, 41, and Rebecca “Becky” (1977-1978), would never have been born since their father and paternal grandfather would never have existed. Travis would never have married his wife, Bobbi Sue Gibbons Tellitocci, and their children, Tyler and Hudson, Joey’s nephews, would never have been born.

In the early 2000s, Joey Tellitocci, an accomplished genealogist, began researching the disaster victims. Since six of his eight great-grandparents were immigrants, it upset him that many of the miner’s names were misspelled and unrecognizable. Several miners were also omitted from various publications.

Utilizing various records, he compiled a more accurate list of the victims.

In 2009, Boggs Run native Linda Cunningham Fluharty graciously published Tellitocci’s list on her Marshall County WVGenWeb website. Also in 2009, the Wheeling News-Register published his list to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the disaster.

In 2011, Sean Duffy, programming director at the Ohio County Public Library, contacted Tellitocci about giving a presentation on the disaster at Lunch With Books. He gave several presentations on the disaster at various organizations between 2011 and 2013.

The Benwood Mine Disaster Memorial is located on Boggs Run, Benwood, and was dedicated on Sept. 27, 2014. (Photo Provided)

For almost 90 years, there had never been a memorial for the victims. This was rectified in 2011 when the Benwood Mine Disaster Memorial Committee was formed. The volunteer committee consisted of eight Marshall County residents – Joseph A. “Joey” Tellitocci, co-chairperson, treasurer and historian; Joseph “Joe” Tellitocci Jr., project coordinator; Susan M. Reilly, co-chairperson; Catherine Feryok, monument designer; Edward “Ed” Sherman; Gladys E. “Betty” Otte Key (1921-2020); John D. Mercer; and Henry E. “JR” Cross, Jr.

From 2011 to 2014, the committee raised funds for a permanent memorial in Benwood. Through numerous donations of money, time, materials, and labor, the memorial, located at the mouth of Boggs Run in Benwood, finally became a reality. It was formally dedicated on Sept. 27, 2014. A memorial for the five victims of the Hitchman Mine Disaster, which occurred in Benwood on May 18, 1942, was also dedicated that day.

In 2015, Joey and Joe Tellitocci were honored as West Virginia History Heroes for their efforts in establishing the memorial. In 2016, a major donors stone, bollards and murals depicting 1920s coal miners were added to the site. In 2019, a memorial was dedicated at the site to Joe Tellitocci, Jr., who unexpectedly passed away in 2018 and worked tirelessly at the memorial site overseeing all aspects of construction and maintenance. The city of Benwood, owner of the memorial site, now oversees all site upkeep.

“April 28, 1924, is a day that should always be remembered in Benwood,” Joey Tellitocci said. “Very few people today could imagine the horror of living through a disaster of that magnitude where husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and friends were crushed, suffocated and burned to death while their sudden widows and young, fatherless children were left destitute.”

Joey’s father said he always felt the presence of the 119 miners while working at the memorial site.

“May they never be forgotten,” he said.

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