AS COALFIELD TRAGEDIES go, the recent one in Tower City, Pa., was not large. Four miners are known to be dead, five are unofficially presumed dead and one trapped miner was rescued.

That it attracted as much attention as it did was largely due to the sustained drama of the effort to bring Ronald Adley to safety after it was learned that he was alive in one of the tunnels of the Kocher Coal Company mine. As the nation watched, and his friends and family kept vigil, Mr. Adley heroically kept his nerve until rescuers could chip through to his survivor's cell beneath Brookside Mountain.

Although it comes approximately a year after the infamous Scotia disaster in eastern Kentucky (26 men were killed in all), the Tower City accident differed in significant ways from the pattern of mining tragedies. It was an anthracite mine, not a bituminous one; the latter type accounts for 99 per cent of the nation's produced coal. According to the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration, fatal accidents are much fewer in anthracite mines. For one thing, the coal is harder, which means roofing is more secure. The Kocher mine, which never had a fatality in its eight years of operation, was regarded as comparatively safe, with but one serious injury on its record.

Although a full investigation will be made, the early evidence suggests that water bursting through from a nearby but abandoned mine was one of the major causes. Such accidents are not frequent. The last lethal combination of coal and water in Pennsylvania occurred in 1959 when 12 men died after the Susquehanna River inundated the tunnels in a mine in Pittston.

None of this can comfort the families of the dead in Tower City. Coal mining is still the nation's most dangerous industrial occupation. At the beginning of this week, 26 men have been killed in accidents in 1977, with 23 the number for that date last year. If there is any consolation to be found in this matter, it is in knowning that 94 men in the Kocher mine managed to scurry to safety when the water crashed through. The grief was dealt out sparingly - this time.