At 10:20 a.m., December 6, 1907, explosions occurred at the No. 6 and No. 8 mines at Monongah, West Virginia. The explosions ripped through the mines at 10:28 a.m., causing the earth to shake as far as eight miles away, shattering buildings and pavement, hurling people and horses violently to the ground, and knocking streetcars off their rails. Three-hundred and sixty-two men and boys died. It remains the worst mine disaster in the history of the United States.
The Monongah Mines Nos. 6 and 8 were located on the West Fork of the Monongahela River, about six miles south of the town of Fairmont, West Virginia. The mines were connected underground and were considered model mines, the most up-to-date in the mining industry. Electricity was used for coal cutting machinery, locomotives were used to haul coal, and the largest areas of each mine were ventilated by mechanical fans.
Soon after the explosion, four miners emerged through an outcrop opening, dazed and bleeding but otherwise unharmed. The stunned survivors could tell nothing of the fate of the others still underground.
With the hundreds of shrieking, half-crazed women and crying children came every man left in the town. Volunteers were willing and anxious to help with the rescue work.
Frantically, they cleared away the wreckage at the entrance and tried to force their way into the mine. They soon began to succumb to the toxic mine air and had to be rescued themselves.
The explosion filled the mine with “black damp”, an atmosphere in which no human being could live. It blocked the main heading with wrecked cars and timbers, and demolished one of the fans, which greatly restricted ventilation.
Choking coal dust, rubble, and wrecked equipment impeded the progress of volunteer rescue teams. The No. 8 mine’s huge ventilation fan had been destroyed, and a smaller fan was used to ventilate both mines. Brick stoppings, the partitions used to direct air through the mines, had been blown out. As rescue parties slowly advanced, they used canvas curtains to restore ventilation, dilute gas, and disperse dust.
At the bottom of No. 6 slope, debris from a wrecked trip was found scattered for 250 feet along the headings. Cars were smashed and piled on top of each other nearly blocking the entry. The trip had been pulled up the slope and stopped at the knuckle a short time before the explosion causing the coupling pin on the first car to break. The entire trip consisting of eighteen loaded two-ton cars went down the incline. The explosion occurred before the cars had gone into the pit mouth and before the trip had reached the bottom of the slope.
At 4:00 p.m., moaning was heard near a crop hole, and a rescuer was lowered through the hole on a rope. About 100 feet below, he found miner Peter Urban sitting on the shattered body of his brother, Stanislaus, staring glassy-eyed into space as he sobbed uncontrollably. He was the last survivor of the Monongah disaster.
Exhausted volunteers found conditions in the mines almost unbearable, heat was intense, and afterdamp caused headaches and nausea. In some headings, ventilation materials and bodies had to be hauled 3,000 feet over massive roof falls and wrecked machinery, mine cars, timbers, and electrical wiring. The stench of death was barely tolerable, and became overpowering as the search dragged on.
Searchers never lost sight of the fact that there might possibly be some men in the mine alive. They continued to explore all parts of the workings with all possible speed, leaving unnecessary work for another time.
Embalmers worked around the clock in shifts. Caskets lined both sides of the main street. The bank served as a morgue. Churches conducted funeral services several times a day as dozens of men dug long rows of graves on nearby hillsides. Disputes flared over identification of victims, and more than once, a body was claimed by two families.
By December 10, the number of people killed was over 175. It was obvious to most rescue workers, but not to relatives of missing men, that Peter Urban would be the last man to be brought out alive. By Thursday, December 12, all workings had been ventilated and searched and 337 bodies recovered. Twenty-five more victims were found during cleanup operations.
A special graveyard, soon filled, was laid out on a bleak hillside. Company houses flanked the burial ground. Rows of open graves were dug in the sodden, half-frozen, rain-drenched and snow-flecked West Virginia soil.
The 362 casualties of Monongah’s coal mine disaster left more than 1,000 widows and children.
The Marion County Coroner’s Jury, after hearing from numerous witnesses, concluded the victims of the disaster died from an explosion caused by either a blown-out shot or by ignition and explosion of blasting powder in Mine No. 8.
“Mining Disasters – An Exhibition,” Mine Safety and Health Administration; online at www.msha.gov/DISASTER/MONONGAH/MONON3B.asp