“I was out on the loaded track and was looking toward the mouth of number 8 and the first thing I knew I saw timbers and everything flying through the air…. followed by black smoke. It seemed to me the smoke was afire. It seemed to me it was a short distance in the air, maybe fifty or sixty feet.”
This was the memory of Carl Meredith, a Foreman on the the Fairmont Mine in West Virginia of the worst mining disaster in American history which happened at Monongah, West Virginia on December 6, 1907. Around 10:30 in the morning after a full contingent of 380 workers, both men and boys had begun their shift, mines no. 6 and 8 of the Fairmont Consolidated Coal Mine were blasted by the force of an underground explosion. An estimated total of 362 miners lost their lives leaving 250 widows and over 1,000 children without support. This was the worst industrial disaster in U.S. History.
A Coal Car Breaks Loose…
In Mine Number 6 which connected with Mine number 8 at the Fairmont Coal Co. outside of Monongah, West Virginia, an 18 year old miner had been operating a trainload of coal cars up the shaft of the processing plant when a coupling broke lose, and sent the coal cars crashing back down the sloping mine. The miner ran ahead, hoping to cut the electrical circuits, but he was too late. The lose cars crashed into a wall, cutting electrical cables which then ignited the dust cloud which had been raised by the crash, it was firmly asserted, and this resulted in an explosion so vast and so powerful that it ruptured almost every ceiling and wall in the mine, instantly killing the miners working below.
And Causes an Explosion Killing Hundreds
The train operator survived when he was blown out the entrance way by the explosion. Another miner who was working close to the entrance of number 8 also survived, receiving a splinter in one eye (losing the use of it) and losing some fingers. The force of this initial explosion and the one that followed it have been detailed by Davitt Mc Ateer in his exhaustive account of this disaster “The True Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History.”:
“The terrible force of the two explosions is beyond description. The large black power house, with it’s vast machinery, And the boiler room were virtually obliterated. Tons of brick and timbers were hurled through the air. At the entrance of the mine was a big iron grating with bars three inches apart. It too, was carried across the river. The fan and the grating were blown 600 feet.”
The mines were connected by a steel bridge over the West Fork River above the ground and by a labyrinth of tunnels beneath. A huge cave-in obstructed the main entrance of number 6 above ground, the main opening being blocked by the wreckage from two strings of ore cars and two electric dynamo motors. The underground structure had been warped into a mass of earth, timber support beams, and metal. The explosion wrecked the ventilation systems causing mixture of deadly gases to be trapped within the mines.
Rescue Efforts are Hampered; Only Four Escape
Several hours later, flour men managed to escape through an outcrop opening above mine number 8, dazed, bloody and with their clothing singed. These men with the other two proved to be the only survivors in the accident. It took five full days of struggle for rescue parties, having to shore up wrecked walls and ceilings as they dug downward to reach the bodies of their fallen comrades. Many of these men had been burned to death, apparently caught in the path of the igniting methane gas; others had simply been suffocated or crushed beneath tons of fallen timber and earth. One man was found with a half-eaten sandwich in his mouth, apparently he had taken a break just as the explosion struck. It took five days to bring out 337 bodies, and another week went by as 17 more were brought to the surface. Eight more were removed by the first of the new year bringing the total to 362.
The men on the surface came to the conclusion that the workers who survived the explosion and cave-in would soon be killed by the gases. These poisonous fumes, which circulated throughout the mines required rescuers to work in relay shifts because they had no protective equipment, such as gas masks and could only work in this lethally gaseous atmosphere for fifteen minutes before having to come up for air. Indeed some of these rescue workers were sufficiently injured by inhaling the vapors that they had to be taken away for medical treatment. Fires which had broken out in mines number 6 and 8 created the further danger of smoke, and only made the problems of the rescue attempt worse. The first blaze started on December 8th in the main entry of mine number 6 at about midnight and a second fire begun in mine number 8 not long after 3:00 pm, delaying rescue work.
The Heartbroken Families of the Lost….
Almost every one of the 3,000 people living in Monongah came running at the sound of the blast, and wound up standing the cold weather, both rain and snow and in the darkness for several days after while they waited for the bodies of their loved ones to be brought to the surface. In some cases, entire families were wiped out. Americans made up a large number of this work force at the Fairmont mine, but most of the men working there had been immigrants. Working at the mine with Americans were Slavs, Poles, and Irishmen. However, the largest number of immigrants at in Monongah were Italian. As the bodies were taken to make-shift morgues in
the area their grief spilled over. Paul Kellog, a worker with a New York charitable organization observed the following scene is one such place wherein the lights were low and gloomy:
“A peasant, ugly with her pitted face, but beautiful in her great sorrow, bent often and kissed the lips of her (dead) husband. All of a sudden there was a cry more piercing than the others. It was from an old mother who had lost seven – her husband, a son, two sons-in-law, and three nephews. She had come upon one of them and the people with her could scarcely hold her. She threw her head on the casket, and spoke to the boy fondly, trying to caress the crumpled face with poor, wrinkled hands. She had moaned all the way that morning from her lonely house to the church door, giving infinite sorrow to those who heard, and here her grief had at last found vent. Outside, rain continued depressing the almost impossible situation further.”
The explosion was it was believed, had been caused by the ignition of “black damp” otherwise known as methane. This in turn ignited the highly flammable coal dust, which is found in all West Virginia bituminous coal mines. What precisely it was that had ignited the
“black damp” is not really known although two theories emerged in addition to the live wires having been exposed by the wreck of the coal cars: carelessness with an open lamp or a dynamite blast gone wrong. Thirteen days after the accident, an official Federal government report on mining accidents and deaths in general was released. On December 19th The New York Times reported that the government concluded that the number of accidents due to mining explosions had increased and that the cause of thes e accidents were often a “lack of proper and enforceable mine regulations.” Another cause was the lack of
information on the explosives used in mining and the conditions under which they could correctly be used. The mining disaster at Monongah increased the awareness of mine owners and the Federal government in the safety problems and lack of operational knowledge found in the mines. However, the changes in safety procedures were time consuming and expensive, with the mine owners dragging their feet, and and the Bureau of Mines having little power to enforce the regulations. The most important basic changes did indeed come, but for the men and boys who were killed at Monongah, the changes were too little and came way too late.
by Davitt McAteer, West Virginia University Press, Morgantown, West Virginia, 2007.
“Darkest Hours” by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977.
New York Times, 7 – 13 December 1907.
New York Times, 19 December 1907.