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Women Killed in Mine Accidents

Rushton Mining Company
Rushton Mine Roof Fall Accident

Osceola Mills, Centre County, Pennsylvania
October 2, 1979
No. Killed - 1

MSHA Final Investigation Report  (560 Kb)  PDF Format
Additional News Articles: Other Woman Killed in Mine Accidents

Tragedy at the Rushton Mine
The State Museum of Pennsylvania  External Link
November 10, 2015

On Oct. 2, 1979, Marilyn McCusker arrived at her job at the Rushton Mine along with her gear – a hardhat with lamp and battery pack, paper union card, lunch pail and leather mining belt.  Later that day, her tragic death would make national history, sending shockwaves through the Pennsylvania coal mining community.

The series of events that would eventually lead to McCusker’s death began in 1974, when she, then Marilyn Williams, applied for a position at the Rushton Mining Co. in Centre County, Pa.  For years, McCusker had worked steadily, holding down jobs as a bartender and in a nursing home.  She applied for a job with Rushton Mining in hopes of improving her family’s standard of living.

Rushton Mining denied McCusker and other women employment based on their gender, setting off a legal battle.  In 1977 a court awarded the women jobs working in the mine and $30,000 in back pay.

Mining is a physically challenging and dangerous job for men and women alike.  The days are long, temperatures can be bone chilling and heavy coal dust fills the air, coating a worker’s skin and lungs.  But the $90-a-day pay was far more than McCusker had earned at her previous jobs.

The income was important to the then – unmarried Marilyn Williams, who was raising a teenage son.  She looked forward to building her own home and ultimately quitting the mine to start a business with her soon-to-be husband, Alan McCusker.

At about 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 2, 1979, five years after Marilyn McCusker first applied for a job with Rushton Mining, she became the first woman in the United States to die in a deep-mine accident.  She was performing the dangerous job of roof bolter helper when a section of the mine roof collapsed.  Tons of rock and debris fell on McCusker, suffocating her.

McCusker was a champion for women’s rights, fair wages and employment in a typically male dominated field.  Her struggle against discrimination continued even after she died, when her husband applied for death benefits.  Pennsylvania laws prohibited a man from collecting benefits after his wife’s death “unless he is incapable of self-support.”

Alan McCusker vowed he would take this fight all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The mining company agreed to pay him and his son a total of $227 a week, with an additional life insurance payment of $12,000 to each of them.

In 1991 the famed Rushton Mine closed its doors permanently and 250 people lost their jobs.

A Woman Coal Miner Dies, and Her Husband Braves Neighbors' Wrath to Fight for a Widower's Mite
People Magazine
December 8, 1980

On Oct. 2, 1979 a 25-foot slab of shale fell on a Pennsylvania coal miner named Marilyn McCusker and she died of shock and asphyxiation.  It might have been just another terrible statistic - 1,700 miners have perished on the job in the past decade.  But Marilyn’s death was unique: At 35, she became the first woman to be killed in a deep-mine accident in North America.

The tragedy set off tremors above-ground.  When Marilyn’s husband, Alan, applied for death benefits, the state turned him down.  A Pennsylvania law guarantees compensation to widows but does not mention widowers.  Alan claimed he was a victim of discrimination based on sex (Pennsylvania ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972).  He sued both the state and his late wife’s employer, the Rushton Mining Co.  During a pretrial hearing, Rushton agreed to pay McCusker and Marilyn’s 17-year-old son by a previous marriage, Michael Williams, a total of $227 a week.  It is the same amount a widow with one child would receive under Pennsylvania law.  In addition, Alan and Michael each got $12,000 from company-purchased life insurance.  McCusker dropped his legal action.  (Seven months before Marilyn died the state legislature had begun rewriting the law, but the bill has been stalled in committee.)

Meanwhile McCusker’s stepson has moved to upstate New York to live with relatives.  Rushton sends him $135 a week and the rest, $92, goes to Alan.  However, when Michael turns 18, Alan becomes the sole beneficiary.  McCusker, 28, appears to have won, but in doing so he became a pariah in his hometown of Utahville, Pa.  Always a controversial figure, he had a reputation for hard drinking even before he met Marilyn in 1974, while she was visiting friends in nearby Coalport.  A nurse’s aide in Utica, N.Y., she was seven years older than Alan.

They were married in December 1975.  “I didn’t think it was going to last,” Alan says now.  “It was rough.  I was always drinking and she was always accusing me of trying to bed every girl in town.”

The son of a local steelworker, Alan never held a job for more than a year.  He tried logging, bartending and carpentry.  Marilyn worked steadily, first in a nursing home and then as a barmaid, but she wanted to be a miner because the wages were so much higher.  In 1975 she and three other women sued Rushton, charging discrimination.  In 1977 they won an out-of-court settlement which gave them jobs and some $30,000 each.  Although there are more than 3,000 women miners in the U.S. today (and 140,000 men), Rushton was among the last companies to give in.

“Marilyn cried when she got her first paycheck,” Alan recalls.  “It was for $350, two weeks’ pay, the most money she’d ever brought home.”  The couple began planning their dream house, and Alan quit his carpentry job to build it.  He stopped drinking, and the marriage improved.

The seven-room solar-heated house stands unfinished.  McCusker stopped working on it for three months after Marilyn died.  But he was not idle.  Among other projects, he sold the rights to his personal “love story” to a TV movie company for $77,500 (he’s received $7,000 so far).

Alan now has a part-time job as an insurance claims investigator, but says he is broke.  “I blew almost everything,” he admits.  A co-worker of Marilyn’s says heatedly, “Everyone feels he took her for all he could.”  Townspeople disapproved of his letting her work while he quit his own job.  Now they have another complaint-that he didn’t “hold his own,” the miners’ way of saying he has talked about the accident to “outsiders,” mainly the press.  McCusker claims, “I have been shot at and they pick on me in taverns.  They want to kick my ass.”

He is dating an unemployed factory worker now but insists he still grieves for Marilyn.  “I wore my wedding band for three months after the accident,” Alan says.  “They should never put ‘Till death do us part’ on rings.  You don’t stop loving someone just because they’re dead.”

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