On January 25, 1936, Newsweek magazine ran a story about deadly cases of silicosis associated with the Hawks Nest Tunnel construction in Fayette County.
It was the first time many Americans had heard of the tunnel disaster, which the magazine attributed to an “atmosphere of deadly dust.”
In all, at least 476 men died of silicosis—a lethal lung disease—while working under deadly conditions in the tunnel. More recent studies suggest the actual number may have been closer to 800. Project contractor, Rinehart and Dennis, and the New Kanawha Power Company, an entity created by Union Carbide, reached small out-of-court settlements with some victims.
Although the deaths had started occurring six years earlier, the companies tried to keep the news under wraps. They paid off local attorneys and even bribed an undertaker to bury the dead in a mass unmarked grave. Newsweek and other national publications finally picked up the story in 1936, and a congressional investigation led to silicosis being classified as an occupational disease.
Construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel is now considered one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.