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Hawk's Nest Tunnel Fire

Labor Disaster: Remembering America’s Worst Industrial Accident

By Mark Hand - CounterPunch, September 7, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster killed more than 750 workers in West Virginia in the early 1930s. It’s the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. And it’s an atrocity few Americans know about.

Union Carbide Corp., the same company responsible for the death of thousands of people in Bhopal, India, was at the center of the Hawk’s Nest disaster. The 1984 toxic gas release in Bhopal, the world’s worst industrial accident, has justifiably received a large amount of attention over the past 30 years, while the Hawk’s Nest disaster is largely forgotten.

Industry officials, politicians and the news media successfully downplayed the deaths and injuries at Hawk’s Nest. When corporations cause mass carnage, it often gets swept under the rug or is justified as the price of progress. Mix in the fact that more than half the workers killed at Hawk’s Nest were poor African Americans and you have the perfect recipe for a nonevent.

Many labor historians and native West Virginians are familiar with the Hawk’s Nest disaster. A few books have been written on the topic, most notably Martin Cherniack’s The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster, published in 1986 by Yale University Press. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber dedicated a portion of Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, a book on corporate public relations efforts published in spring 2001, to Hawk’s Nest. The disaster also was the subject of a novel called Hawk’s Nest, written by West Virginia author Hubert Skidmore and published in 1941.

What is the Hawk’s Nest disaster? Union Carbide wanted to build a 3.8-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain in Fayette County, W.Va. The tunnel would divert water from the New River and allow it to drop down about 160 feet. The force of the water would then power turbines to create electricity that would be distributed to a nearby Union Carbide metallurgical plant. The name Hawk’s Nest is derived from the many fish hawks that inhabited the cliffs on Gauley Mountain.

Union Carbide awarded a two-year construction and engineering contract to Rinehart & Dennis Co., based in Charlottesville, Va. Construction of the tunnel began in spring 1930. Rinehart & Dennis worked under Union Carbide engineers, giving Union Carbide tight control over the project. In an effort to save time and money — and to avoid penalties for late completion — Rinehart & Dennis cut many corners.

To build the tunnel, workers moved forward through the mountain at a rate of about 300 feet per week. But here’s the problem: Workers were forced to break through 99.4% pure silica. At the time, experts knew that miners who inhaled silica dust would contract silicosis, an often deadly lung ailment. Inhalation of silica dust had been identified 15 years earlier as the cause of silicosis.

Aware of the dangers, Rinehart & Dennis still ordered the workers to use a dry drilling technique that would create more dust. Dry drilling is faster than wet drilling, in which dust raised by drilling is washed out of the air by spraying water at the drill tip. In addition, Rinehart & Dennis provided inadequate ventilation, failed to issue protective respirators, and imposed poor living conditions upon the workers.

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