Tuesday, August 21, 2007

1924 Coal Mine Disaster


Entire Day Shift of Wheeling Steel Corporation Trapped in Benwood Workings.


Debris and Poison Gas Block Rescuers - Stricken Families Grieve in Drenching Rain.Special to the New York Times.

Benwood, W. Va., April 28 - One hundred and fourteen men are believed to have perished in an explosion in the Benwood mine of the Wheeling Steel Corporation here at 7:30 0'clock this morning. Fourteen bodies have been recovered. Rescue crews, working at both ends of the mine, had to break their way through a huge mass of stone that blocked the entrance. Late this afternoon they had reached a point 3,000 feet from the main entrance, where another complete blockade was encountered. Two men were found still alive at 11 o'clock in an air shaft but they died before they could be carried to the surface. Two hours later the bodies of two other men, burned beyond recognition, were found on a motor near the mouth of the mine. Three other bodies were carried out at the Elm Grove outlet on the east soon afterward. The terrific force of the explosion tore away heavy ties used over the entrance to the mine. The concussion, officials believe, was sufficient to kill a majority of the workers. As if in sympathy with the frantic hundreds who thronged the streets near the steel company's gates, a heavy rain fell throughout the day. Wives and children of the miners, seemingly unmindful of the drenching downpour, stood about in pitiful groups, awaiting news of their loved ones, for whom hope was gradually dying. At 2:30 P.M. the pumps used by rescue workers had begun to pour gas from the main shaft entrance at Benwood. All outlets for the poisonous fumes had been cut off until this time. Inspector A. E. Lafferty, rturning from a trip into the mine at Brown's Run air shaft, said there was absolutely no hope for the men then entombed. The explosion occurred only five minutes after the crew on the day shift had gone into the mine. The regular morning work train carried at least 104 miners and their equipment. A man who had seen them start said he heard the explosion less than five minutes later. The train at this time had traveled at least a mile into the mine, it is believed. At 8 o'clock, half an hour after the explosion, four cars from mine headquarters carrying rescue workers left Benwood at 10 o'clock for the Still Run air shaft, while reinforcements were sent at the same time to Brown's Run. The mine rescue car Holmes, sent by the Pittsburgh division of the United States Bureau of Mines, arrived at noon and a crew of mine engineers under the supervision of J. W. Fene, system chief safety engineer of Pittsburgh, went into the mine soon afterward. A corps of nurses from the Wheeling Chapter of the American Red Cross and five Wheeling physicians were on the scene, while Red Cross headquarters at Washington, D. C. has assured that any other medical assistance needed would be sent. On the embankment overlooking Marshall Street, at the gate of the steel company, hundreds are crowding the hills in the rain, which has poured down all day. An ink-black sky forms a background for the mine entrance, while in the rear of the Marshall Street hill flames from the steel furnaces cast a lurid glow over the scene. Benwood is the steel city of the Wheeling District. It is five miles below Wheeling on the river and the mine is one of the oldest in this district. Officials announced that 104 men received their "checks" before entering the mine. While some might have entered without "checking in," they said the number entombed would not be more than 110.

April 30, 1924

Rescue Crews Fight Great Odds in Wake of Benwood Mill Disaster.
Wheeling, W. Va., April 29. -- Bodies of thirty-five of the 111 men entombed in the Wheeling Steel Corporation's Benwood Mill mine by a gas explosion yesterday had been removed tonight and rescue crews had found three others as they made slow progress in penetrating the workings. There is no expectation that any of the miners would be found alive. The battle against high water, fallen rock and poison gas centred tonight in the passages leading from the Brown's Run air shaft. The fatigued rescue crews pushed forward over almost insurmountable obstacles. Brown's Run air shaft is three miles in the hills above Benwood and is almost inaccessible. There are no houses in the vicinity and tents were hurriedly pitched for the rescue crews and their supplies were taken to them over a clay road made almost impassable by heavy rains and constant travel since the disaster. Automobiles were finally abandoned and supplies went forward by horse and wagon.


By George Belanus, Staff WriterWheeling News-RegisterApril 28, 1994
Submitted by: Jack Cunningham
When Ohio Valley residents awoke on Monday, April 28, 1924, they were greeted with the grim news that an explosion at the Benwood Mine had trapped more than 100 miners underground.
The mine, located at the Wheeling Steel and Iron Corp.'s plant at Benwood, blew up at approximately 7:05 a.m. that day, about 25 minutes after the last truckload of miners had gone underground to work.
Search and rescue operations began at the main entrance, located at the site of the steel mill, and at an air shaft two miles out Brown's Run.
By the time the rescue operations were largely complete a week later, it was known that at least 111 men had been killed in the explosion- some by the blast itself but more by what was known as the "afterdamp" caused by the explosions that ripped through the mine.
Afterdamp was determined as the cause of death in many cases by the fact that many bodies were found in the mine with coats, clothing and hankerchiefs wrapped around the men's heads and no evidence they had been burned to death as those close to the explosion were.
News reporters were quick to get to the scene, but some took up news-gathering positions in different locations.
Reporters from the Moundsville Daily Echo apparently had gathered at the main portal to the mine at the steel mill in Benwood, judging by the fact that they got short on information when state police clamped down security measures and cut them off from their news sources at that scene of rescue operations.
William H. "Bill" Yenke covered the story for the News-Register and heard the mine explosion in Wheeling on the street. Yenke immediately got on a streetcar, obtained a transfer and went to Benwood to cover the story, he said in later years.
He said he figured there would be a move to deny access to portal areas to newsman, so he rented a room from a man who lived near the air shaft to the mine two miles up Brown's Run. The room rental included the use of a telephone, he said, which proved invaluable in calling news stories on rescue and body recovery operations back to the newsroom in Wheeling as the week progressed.
"The nice thing was that they couldn't throw me out of there because , for all intents and purposed, I lived there," Yenke said with a laugh.
News reports from the first day of the disaster stated that more than 100 men were trapped in the mine by the explosion, and by 2:30 p.m. that day it was known there were five dead with little hope for the survival of the rest.
Two men were found wandering in the workings near the air shaft up Brown's Run. While it was reported they were resuscitated, they later died.
Three mutilated bodies were found on a motor used to haul cargo from one spot to another in the mine, some 2,500 feet from the main entrance the first day. Those bodies were badly burned by the explosion, reports said, and the three men were not identified.
Anywhere from 104 to 114 men were presumed to be in the mine when it exploded, early news accounts said. Reportedly, 104 men had checked into the mine but it was believed some men had gone to work without going through the normal check-in procedure. Checking in with one's name tag is still a common practice in deep underground mines today.
The cause of the explosion could not be determined by onlookers and news personnel since what was seen as strict censorship was put into place quickly the first day.
It was not until the next Monday, May 5, that news came out that it was believed there had been two explosions in the mine which caused the disaster.
The first explosion was in a pocket of gas (usually methane gas is liberated from the coal seam in deep mines), press accounts said.
The second explosion was of dust, most likely coal dust, which was raised into the air and then ignited by the methane explosion. The second explosion was believed to have caused the deaths of the miners, press accounts said.
As rescue efforts began, help poured in, in the form of extra manpower from other towns, including mine rescue cars from Pittsburgh and Tug River, and United Mine Workers of America personnel from the union's headquarter's in Bridgeport.
It was learned the first day that the superintendent of the mine, George Holliday of 510 Water St., Benwood, was one of the men trapped in the mine, along with his son, George Jr., who was in charge of the motors in the mine.
Neither survived the disaster, perishing with the rest of the men underground when the explosions occurred. It normally took 40 to 45 minutes to walk underground from the main entrance to the area where the explosion occurred, and it was about three miles through the main entrance to the point where the explosion was near the Brown's Run air shaft.
The mine fan was still operating the first day after the disaster, news accounts said, pumping 40,000 cubic feet of air into the mine and 100,000 cubic feet of air out.
Before the second mine rescue car arrived, workers had already penetrated 1,500 feet into the mine. There were no signs of fire or smoke in the mine itself and there was no smoke coming out of the mine.
As the work to dig into the mine progressed and bodies were brought out, a morgue was set up at the Cooey-Bentz company in Wheeling. The morgue was later shifted to the Blue Ribbon company in Benwood, and a coroner's jury viewed the bodies and made its report as the bodies were brought out of the mine.
Horses and wagons took the bodies to a nearby paved road where they were met by hearses from Wheeling, Benwood and McMechen.
On the second day, the state police came in and set up lines to keep the public and news reporters away from the main entrance. This caused reporters at the main entrance to be cut off from interviewing people directly engaged in search and rescue operations.
Those reporters at the main entrance had to resort to calling the information section of Wheeling and getting their information from that source.
Benwood residents organized a relief committee to raise money for the families of the dead miners. The committee, headed by Donald Liberatore of the Bank of Benwood, made an appeal for financial aid for the families, many of whom were destitute, in an era where there was no unemployment compensation or welfare.
By Wednesday of that week, the Benwood steel mill ceased operation due to no more coal being available from its mine. It was estimated it would be several before months before the coal supply resumed due to necessary repairs being made to the mine.
It also was discovered that day the main entrance was blocked by solid rock and rescue efforts at that location were stopped by Chief Mine Inspector R.M. Lamble, who was personally directing the search efforts. Excavation efforts and body recovery were handled only from the Brown's Run air shaft after that time.
By then it was slow going in search operations due to various roof falls in the depths of the mine where the actual workings were located. It was not until Sunday, May 3, that a total of 83 bodies were taken from the mine. On Monday, May 5, 115 dead miners had finally been removed from the mine.
Cribbing works, commonly used to shore up the roof in underground coal mines, were being set by work crews.
By Wednesday, May 7, the burials were under way and the story had dropped off the front pages of the newspapers. And 70 years later, the worst mine disaster in the Ohio Valley is just a distant memory of a day when not many safety measures were taken in underground mines.
From They Died In The Darknessby Lacy A. Dillon, 1976
Benwood Mine Disaster Victims
"No casket was opened due to the terrible condition of the bodies."
Jim Angelas
Salvatore Albano
Raffelo Aprea
Frank Balanzo
Stanley Baranoski
Wasil Beiley
Frank Bitanzo
Carlo Canera
Mike Capobianco
Rocco Capobianco
Tony Christo
Domenico Cognitti
Maria (Mario?) Cojecticitnia
Frank Conti
Domenik Cooper
Pasquelo Corbi
Mark Crosby
Sam Dombrowski
Marafino Daniele
Carlo DiGorge
Giovani DiScanna
Adam Dlugobiski
John Duhuolas (Duyla)
Pasquila Fana
Patsy Ferri
Celestino Ferrante
John Frank, Sr.
John Frank, Jr.
Nick Fzayares
James Ganis
Gus Gannokis
Mike George
Ignac Gojimski
John Golembeiski
Stanislaus Golembeiski
Antonic Hamill
James Harve
Mike Herris
Mat Herron (J. J. Boyle)
Joe Hojda
George William Holliday, Sr.
George William Holliday, Jr.
Alexander Horvath
John Jellarick (Jelacic)
Lewellyn Joseph
Joe Kedziorski
Antonio Kevien
John Kiipclia
Thieodore Koknakaas
Joe Kolodzeyski
Krazinier Kon
Kazimer Kopetz
Joe Koziemsko
John Kupcha
Waldyslaw Lakomy
Lenard Levicki
Filok Lisak
Mike Malasannskis
Mikoloy Malicki
Joseph Marka
Nick Masino
Nick Mavcoginskis
Frank Mazzella
Meli Mickjmovich
Antonio Miglaccio
Stany Mikolche
George McCarrihan
George McGill
Hugh McGill
Walter Oblizajck
Peter Onort
Ignatius Orban
Nick Padula
Melo Paich
Nick Paich
Joe Pakinlle
Andy Penec
Emanuel Papulos
Santo Parise
Egnetts Paree
Mike Patrick
John Picbowicz*
Agustin Rnagel
Joshua Rawlins
Guiseppe Rea
Steini Robinsky
Stany Rodey
Marino Rotellini
William Russell
Salvatore Sabitino
Joseph Skachawicz
Joseph Samilli
Angelo Sarinos
Sam Senchol
Pete Sinios
Albert Slava
John Sloga
Pete Sloga
William Smith
Alexander Fargie Snedden
Walter Snedden
Genera Spignuri
Mike Staczviski
John Swoski
Andy Szalajka
Fzidor Szalajka
Steve Vargo
Gaetaus Vitello
Ralph Vitello
Samuel Vitello
Leo Wagner
David Watson
William Webster
Lawerence Wiadrawski
Wienty Weinviena
Kenneth Wood
John Zuk

Marshall County Index of Deaths, Volume 2, page 187:JOHN PICHOWICZ, 4/28/24 - See PIECHOWICZ FAMILY

Cause: mine explosionAge 16 years, 11 mo. 3 days; single