On March 8, 1960, the Holden Mine at Island Creek No. 22 in Holden, WV caught fire in the coal seam, and created a carbon monoxide gas which killed eighteen men by asphyxiation. Two miners escaped. It wasn’t the first mine disaster to occur in the southern West Virginia coal fields, and it hasn’t been the last.
But it traumatized the local community enough that the affected families held memorial reunions regularly from 1961 to 2012, and have spent the last several years seeking to create a fitting permanent monument to the tragedy. Why the focus on this one disaster?
Perhaps H.A. Jarvis, who was a mine inspector at the U.S. Bureau of Mines Field Office in Logan at the time, sums it up best: “The history of coal mining in Logan County records no greater loss of life previously in a single occurrence. Having participated in many rescue operations following mine accidents, gas and coal dust explosions, and fires, [I can say that] this was the most difficult, frustrating and lengthy.”
Seventy-two children were left fatherless and sixteen wives were made widows by this mine disaster.
On September 10, 2016, 210 members of the Holden 22 coal camp community gathered to dedicate the completion of that fitting permanent monument, located directly across from the WV Army National Guard Logan-Mingo Readiness Center atop Holden 22, in a solemn ceremony honoring the lives of those lost miners.
And not only honoring those 18 men, but also recognizing the selfless dedication of the many miners and rescue workers who sought to come to their aid. H.A. Jarvis, who posted his diary of the event online in 2007, speaks eloquently to that aspect as well: “[This online post is] an effort to keep alive remembrances of twenty men initially trapped underground by fire.
“Of those who labored so hard and long in rescue efforts, often in a contaminated atmosphere, which resulted in hospitalization for some. Of coal miners who left employment elsewhere and devoted full time to the effort. Of others who, after a shift of regular employment, donated another shift of work. Of coal miners who, although untrained in the use of protective respiratory devices, would don such equipment with minimal instruction.
“These asked nothing more than the opportunity to help their fellowman in distress. These meet my criterion for heroes, and are remembered as such. Failing to preserve these poignant memories would seem to compound the tragedy.”
The Holden 22 dedication ceremony rose to the occasion. Senator Art Kirkendoll presided over an hour and half long presentation, which included dignified speeches by Logan County Commission president Danny Godby, Mingo County Commission president John Mark Hubbard, and Holden 22 Miners Memorial Fund, Inc. president Isom Ooten.
Mike Sazy, a Logan, WV native and son of a coal miner, composed and read a heartfelt poetic ode to the hard work and dedication of Holden 22’s mining community. He was accompanied on autoharp by singer/songwriter Roger Bryant, 2014 winner of the Vandalia Award, West Virginia’s highest folklife honor. Bryant went on to sing the Merle Travis tune ‘Dark as a Dungeon,’ the widely beloved song that has become the miner’s anthem.
A color guard from the WV National Guard presented, and at ceremony’s end, retrieved, the colors. The board of directors of the Holden 22 Miners Memorial Fund, Inc. — Isom Ooten, Patricia Bodo Sazy, and, standing in for Connie Maynard Preece, who couldn’t attend, her granddaughter Grace Browning and husband John Preece — released 18 symbolic red, white and blue balloons into the hemisphere toward ceremony’s end. And Reverend Lonnie Gore, Jr., who grew up in Holden 22 camp, closed with a fitting prayer, thanking God that the community is able to finally find closure to this tragedy by creating an enduring monument to keep the memory of these miners alive for generations to come.
Perhaps the most stirring aspect of the Holden 22 Dedication ceremony was the oral history remembrances of the family members and rescuers themselves. Mary Ann Hall Curry, R.N., is one of the few first responders to the disaster still living. She remained 11 days on site round the clock. The mine company, Island Creek, had set up 3 railroad cabooses directly adjacent to the mineshaft entry to serve food and provide bedding to rescuers.
When the miners’ bodies were located in the mine, they were wrapped in blankets and plastic bags, and carried to the base of a 485-foot elevator shaft. They were lined up neatly to await their return to the surface. A heavy wet snow fell, covering the ground. Curry distinctly recalls: “The snow stopped just like that when they got the last body out, as if it had been turned off.”
Fifty six years have passed, and though the emotional impact of the event is as strong as ever, some of the details on the stories shared have blurred with time. One of the audience members, for example, described how miner Josh Chafin, before he died, wrote a note to his wife saying “Bring our children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord,” and that he had passed this note through an opening in the coal seam to rescuers, even though the seam wasn’t large enough for him to get through.
H.A. Jarvis, in his diary, describes what actually happened, since he was there: “The scene that greeted us at the end of the 2,400-foot journey was one void of all sound and motion. Like a photograph, thirteen coal miners sat and lounged frozen in their last act of life.
“The first, in the act of enclosing the opening with cloth, knelt in front of his unfinished task with hammer and nail in hand. Another sat before his lunch pail with the lid in one hand and a sandwich, with one bite missing, in the other.
“Their foreman, Josh Chafin, sat with arms folded across his knees. Between his feet sat a flame-safety lamp with a note attached to the handle. With hope that it contained information about the others, I removed and read the note.
“Addressed to his wife, it revealed only his love for her and asked that their children ‘be raised in the Lord.”
“This, the only communication ever found, was duly delivered to Mrs. Chafin.”
[A copy of that note is in each of the Mine Health, Safety Administration offices in West Virginia. The full note read: “Mable, I love you more than you will ever know and raise them to serve the Lord.” It was signed Jr., the name he went by.]
“The scene left no doubt,” continues Jarvis in the diary, “that these lives were snuffed out instantaneously and without pain or suffering.
“Also, there was no doubting the cause, a lethal concentration of colorless, odorless, and tasteless carbon monoxide.”
Ironically, after days of fruitless searches for the men, rescue teams found them within 24 hours of when Island Creek President Raymond E. Salvati predicted they would be located. He kept an optimistic face to the public to the last. From the March 14, 1960 Charleston Daily Mail news report:
“Someone asked the inevitable question. Are the men alive?
‘I don’t think there is any question about it,’ said Island Creek President Raymond E. Salvati. ‘Those men are still alive and we are going to get them out.’
So where do they go from here?
T. N. Camiela, Island Creek vice president in charge of operations, said the ‘fresh-air base’ — the area where oxygen masks aren’t needed — would be pushed to within 650 feet of the area where it’s presumed the miners have barricaded themselves with airtight materials.
They’re now 960 feet away. How long will that take?
‘We’ll know something within 24 hours,’ Salvati said.
And indeed they did.
Charleston Daily Mail, March 14, 1960: http://www3.gendisasters.com/west-virginia/20147/holden-wv-slate-fall-fire-in-coal-mine-mar-1960
Diary of H.A. Jarvis, one of several mine inspectors at U.S. Bureau of Mines Field Office in Logan, WV: http://minedisasters.blogspot.com/2007/08/holden-diary_21.htmlcomments