On March 8, 1960 at Holden, Logan Co, WV, an underground coal mine tragedy occurred. While vivid memories remain of my participation in the operations that followed, my dated notes, map of the mine, and newspaper clippings are now yellowing and deteriorating from age. This effort is prompted by an unwillingness to allow the memories to go the way of paper mementos. 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 rememembered as such. Failing to preserve these poignant memories would seem to compound the tragedy.
Having participated in many operations following mine accidents, gas and coal dust explosions, and fires, this was the most difficult, frustrating and lengthy.
Tuesday, March 8, 1960
The morning found roads passable despite the overnight snowfall that covered Southern West Virginia. The clearing and application of salt and cinders by State road crews allowed Paul Akers and me to arrive in Logan withough difficulty. Paul and I were Federal Coal-Mine assigned to the U.S. Bureau of Mines Field Office located in the basement of Logan Post Office. With written reports due on recently completed coal mine inspections, we anticipated spending the day at this mundane task. Shortly after beginning, James Whelen, Supervising Inspector arrived in his usual jovial mood. Greeting us with comments on the weather, he turned to the work schedule board. Noting that his other Inspectors, Bob Calvert, Tom Gay, and Bill Stinette were on duty in the field, he had said, "Boys it looks as if we have it all to ourselves today" when interrrupted by the ringing telephone. As usual, the call was recorded in his own unique style of shorthand. Paul and I resumed work, barly aware of Whelen placing, receiving, and recording telephone calls.
At nearby Holden, WV, underground employees had entered Island Creek Coal Company's No.22 Mine. Among which was a group of eighteen production personnel accompanied by William (Bill) Donaldson, Safety Engineer, and James Lundell., Industrial Engineer. With normal mining in progress, a crew of men was observed handling mine supplies on the track-haulageway at the Third Left Entries overcast. The observer saw a bright flash of light which apeared to be an electric arc. Later two electric locomotives approached the same location from opposite directions and both operators observed an illumination. One of the operators, Clyde White, realized that the source of light was a fire. He reversed direction, returned to his 19 co-workers and warned of the fire between them and the elevator shaft.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m., Whelen interrupted our work following the receipt of a telephone call. "That was Paul Evans, Mine Clerk at No. 22 Mine, reporting the discovery of a fire underground," informed Whelen. He instructed Paul and me to "investigate and report back as soon as possible with available information."
A gray slush lay along either side of the road. Snow flakes, directed by gusting winds, danced intricate swirls as they fell from leaden skies. Only the sounds of wind and ryhthmic slap-slap of windshield wipers broke the silence inside our vehicle. Speculation was useless with the meager information available. The only certainty in investigating mine accidents is the uncertainty as no two are ever exactly the same. Although prompt notifacation of a mine fire is required, it often is received after extinguishment or the failure to do so. An underground mine fire is most dreaded in the industrry while others view an explosion as worse. Explosions quickly do violence to lives and property whereas fire, liberating intense heat, dense smoke, and poisonous gases, continue to endanger until either controlled or extinguished.
Officials and personnel at No 22 Mine were naturally bewildered, unable to comprehend how such could have happened, and deeply concerned for the safety of the twenty coal miners trapped behind the fire. With all available information relayed back to Whelen, establishing a preliminary was begun. State and local law enforcement agencies were requested to provide traffic control. Barricades were erected for the control of people who inevitably congregate and avenues established to permit an unobstructed flow of needed personnel and supplies. When satisfied with the progress, Paul and I entered the mine by way of the 480-foot deep elevator shaft and were transported by rail to the fire scene. Upon discovering and reporting the fire, the Foreman described the scene. "The intense heat caused the steel track-rails to twist and contort like huge black snakes in the throes of death."
The fire originated on the haulage road at the overcast supplying ventilation to the Third Left Entries, a distance of some three miles inby the elevator shaft. Flame had devoured the wooden roof supports allowing the overlying strata to collapse and completely fill the entry with rock. The mine was relatively old, having been opened in 1927. Access to the Cedar Grove coalbed, averaging 66 inches in height was by the elevator shaft from the Pine Creek side and a 1,500 - foot slope on the Elk Creek side, some seven miles apart. Ventilation was induced through these accesses by a large fan installed on the surface pillars of coal left for support during the development stage. This type of mining, a normal practice, places stress on the strata above and beneath the coal bed. Here, such stresses had fractured the overlying strata causing the fall of roof material which blocked normal travel in each of the seven entries paralleling the haulage road in No 4 Main Entry. The conditions prevented gaining quick access ahead of the fire and mounting a direct fire fighting operation.
Representatives of the West Virginia Department of Mines, Island Creek Coal Compny, and U.S. Bureau of Mines were now on the scene and aware of the existing conditions. All agreed that the quickest access to the fire could be gained through the hollow-core concrete block stoppings separating No. 3 Main Entry and No. 4 which contained the fire.
The No. 3 Main Entry afforded a vertical clearance of some 14 to 16 inches above the fallen roof material. In this confined space and with limited ventilation, workers, lying on their side, attacked the concrete blocks with sledge hammers. Others worked to enlarge the work space. Large rocks were broken with hammers that could be lifted but a few inches. By passing broken pieces of rock from hand to hand down the line of workers, space was slowly gained. Fresh workers replaced the tiring as the work continued without interruption. Breaking away the concrete blocks revealed a backing of solid concrete. Mine personnel now recalled this was made necessary when stress caused air leaks in the original stoppings. The delay in overcoming this new obstacle prevented stopping the advancing fire as anticipated. Water was being hosed onto the fire through the created opening when Inspector Mike Cordray and I were summoned to the surface.
Operation Officials requested that we, with a few others, enter the mine via the Elk Creek slope. A search was to be conducted for the entrapped men or clues as to their whereabouts and the air coming from the fire area tested. Driving as close as snow and road conditions would permit, we trudged through knee-deep snow to the slope entrance at 1:30 p.m. Hip-deep water was found at the coal level where entering air was measured to be 47,000 cubic feet by Joe Sarsfield, Company Safety Inspector. Every opening was explored until travel was blocked by impassable falls of roof. Mine inspection records of this area, dated a week earlier, revealed that these areas were passable. In the blocked No. 2 Entry, Elk Creek Mains, Cordray moved ahead of the group to test for the presence of carbon monoxide which required 30 seconds more or less. Before that time expired, Mike's knees were noticed to buckle. Holding my breath, I waded to him as quickly as possible and began assisting him toward fresh air. His reaction was sufficient to conclude that air from the fire area would not support life. The CO detector indicated the presence of near two-tenths percent, proving the original conclusion. There remained hope that the men had escaped this atmosphere by seeking refuge in barricaded areas.
A surprising event was unfolding upon our return to the surface and mine office. Two of the entrapped men, Kyle Blair and Willis Carter had arrived at the underground base of operations and were now en route to the surface. There was great elation over their safety and expectation that they carried vitally needed information. From them it was learned that upon being notified of the fire, Donaldson grouped the men together. Carter, a ventilation specialist, volunteered to travel toward the fire and open a pair of air-locking doors which would short circuit the ventilating current. This would prevent air from the fire area reaching the men. Oddly enough, the door nearest the fire was opened first. Dense smoke and the poisonous atmosphere engulfed and nearly overcame both men making it impossible to reach and open the second door some 600 feet away. They were then forced to take the only route that offered escape from the deadly atmosphere. For more than three hours they wriggled, snaked, and clawed through minute openings above the fallen roof material to reach safety some 6,000 feet away. The same route now facing those engaged in the rescue effort.
Clearly recalled is the question posed to Carter, "Why didn't you get the second door opened?"
Carter Tearfully replied, "I tried, honest I tried."
Yet, a published statement later quoted Paul Lingo, Assistant Director, WV Department of Mines as saying, "It was five days before officials realized that the door was closed. Until that time, they were baffled by the ventilation system's failure to flush the smoke." When Carter was asked the location and plans of the other men, he answered, "I don't know." Both Cater and Blair were later sent home to recuperate from their ordeal.
Officials requested that we, now equipped with the CHEMOX self contained breathing apparatus, repeat our former exploration. We were to determine the direction, quantity, and quality of the ventilating air current. Ventilation controls were to be adjusted to meet the adopted specifications. After returning to the surface and consulting with officials at 6:00 p.m., Mike and I reentered the mine by way of the elevator shaft.
During our absence a second access to the fire had been achieved. Through the opening, dense smoke and flame were observed and intense heat was present. Water lines were extended to the opening and fire fighting efforts were renewed. The efforts were hampered by inadequate volume and water pressure. Additional water was obtained from the Elk Creek after breaking through ice and the Holden public water system was tapped yet, the lack persisted. A prototype fire fighting device under development at the U.S. Bureau of Mines facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was trucked to the mine known as, "Foam Plug", the devide generated a thick, flame quenching foam. Its capabilities could not be fully utilized under the existing conditions. The wall of fallen roof material prevented the foam from effectively reaching the fire.
The number of workers now available allowed officials to divide the force into three work shifts and send the first arrivals home. We, Paul and I, returned to Logan at 3:00 a.m. after 20 hours of duty.
With lives at stake, a rescue effort is naturally an emotional experience and packed with pressure which increases if quick success is denied. Differing opinions arise, questions asked, and suggestions made without adequate forethought. The question as to why Donaldson and the others had not followed Blair and Carter to safety was asked without knowing the conditions. Later, stopping the fan was suggested because the induced ventilation was fueling and advancing the fire. To do so could allow the methane gas being liberated to accumulate into its explosive range and be ignited by the fire. Also, by-products of the fire could permeate all areas of the mine requiring respiratory protection for all workers. The limited work space available made this impossible. As to why Donaldson did not inform Carter of his plane, it seems reasonable that none had been made when they separated. there is reason to believe that he expected their return from successfully short circuiting the ventilating air current. Being acquainted with Bill Donaldson, his abilities, and knowledge of the mine gave some insight as to his choices. The No 7 section off No 8 Main Entry offered refuge with the erection of two barricades. Another was the Bore- Hole Entries which admitted fresh air through holdes drilled from the surface. It could not be known if he was aware that excape via the Elk Creek Slope was blocked.
Dramatic changes were immediately noticed upon arriving for the 3:00 p.m. work shift. Law enforcement personnel were directing the increased traffic flow. A host of people were assembled inside roped-off areas. Red Cross personnel now occupied part of the mine office. On the surface between mine office and elevator shaft, Salvation Army workers were serving food and drink. Appreciative miners had erected an overhead canvass for protection against the falling snow. A fire inside an open oil drum provided heat for the workers. This began the service provided throughout by the Salvation Army. Of the many women and men that served, my memory retains the name of only two, Mrs. L.M. Bittenger and Linda Coleman. Reporters from the news media were now in evidence and hungry for information. They were observed listening to private conversations in the open, from behind parked cars, and at windows of the mine office.
Apparently, anxiety over the entrapped miners had spread world-wide. A press release from the Vatican reported that the Pope was praying for the men's safety. A newspaper photograph which captured me resulted in a lady from Arkansas writing to Operation Officials. She enclosed the photograph and with an arrow, identified me as her long gone husband. She requested they have him contact her as soon as possible and tell him to be careful.. I was spared the reply but not the ribbing of having a heretofore undisclosed past.
>From underground came word that fire and heat were threatening the seprating stoppings. Our shift immediately entered the mine with materials to erect concrete reinforcements. As this was being done, water lines and ventilation controls were again extended, another access to the fire was gained and fire fighting efforts continued with vigor. To efficiently continue the work at hand required more detailed knowledge of what lay ahead. Inspectors Cordray, Tom Allaman, and I noted areas needing special work to create sufficient space for the rescue teams with their bulky equipment. The limited clearance These were pushed ahead or pulled behind as we explored No. 3 Main Entry as far as the 4 left entries. We took the opporunity to search this area and the openings leading to the return air shaft for any helpful evidence without success. We discovered, upon our return to the workers at 10:30 p.m. that steam had seriously weakened the roof. The entire area required installing additional roof supports. The water hose, ordered at the shift's start, had only now arrived and without the badly needed nozzle. The combination of weakened roof and separating stoppings posed a real danger of losing all that had been accomplished. The relief shift continued the corrective measures as we returned to Logan endng a 12-hour stint.
The arriving second shift was called into a meeting by Operation Officials. Notification was given that an information officer had been selected to handle all news releases. The reason given was that voiced rumors, speculations, and uninformed opinions were being circulated as facts. The result being that immediate family members, relatives, and friends of the entrapped men were having their hopes raised to unrealistic heights one day and dashed into the depths of despair the next. We were asked not to converse with reporters and to refer all questions to the information officer.
The second shift entered the mine at 4:00 p.m. and relieved the first shift at the work site. Because vertical clearance could be increased easier in Nos 1 and 2 Maine Entries, crawl space was being Much like a bucket brigade, removed rock was passed hand to hand down the line of workers. In like manner, needed supplies were dragged, pushed and pulled up the line. An example of the herculean effort put forth from the beginning. The slow progress was no indication of the energy being expended. Only the urgency of reaching the entrapped fellow miners drove these men to such effort.
At the request of Mr. Porter, a company official, I accompanied him on an exploration ahead to the Air Shaft Entries by way of No. 1 Main Entry. The conditions were found to be virtually the same as before with light smoke visible. WE returned to find Mr. Crawford L Wilson, Director, West Virginia Department of Mines, in charge of the underground operation. After hearing Mr. Porter's account of our exploration, Mr. Wilson ordered us to take a crew of men and extend the exploration as far as conditions would permit. We agreed, providing that no changes be made to existing ventilation controls. It had been noted that any decrease in the volume of air in No. 3 Main Entry permitted smoke to enter the route. While awaiting the assembly of a crew I was called to the telephone and saw changes being made to those controls. The call was from Mr. W. R. Park, District Manager, U.S. Bureau of Mines, who requested information regarding the situation underground. After completing the call, I informed Mr. Wilson that due to the changes the trip was inadvisable unless respiratory protection was provided the men. Mr Wilson reiterated that under State law, he had overall jurisdiction and that all persons involved were to comply with his orders. After respectfully declining to obey, he called my superiors and he was told that I was to use my ownjudgement. Breaking impasse was the arrival of Mr. R.E. Salvatti, President, Island Creek Coal Company, and Mr. Elmer Layne. With Layne was his trained rescue team from the Company's Bartley Mine and equipped with self-contained oxygen breathing apparatus.
An overnight news release issued at 1:00 a.m. informed, "After inspection trip in the mine, Wilson expects rescue team to embark within an hour toward entombed men." At 3:00 a.m., "More hot areas encountered; Passage impossible at present due to heat and lack of air." At 5:30 a.m., "Wilson said new ventilation system being tried to pump fresh air up to trapped miners; said men should be reached by evening."
The second shift entered the mine at 3:45 p.m. and relieved the first shift at the work site. While feeling disappointed that the rescue team was prevented from reaching their goal last night, their gratification for not leading men into that 'hot area' without needed respiratory protection. The entire shift was spent attempting to make the new ventilation system work and in correcting the results... During the attempt, work areas became more contaminated with by-products of the fire and forced withdrawing the workers. It was the consensus of those underground that returning to the original system offered the only hope of saving what had been accomplished so far. Permission to do so was requested and granted by operation officials on the surface. The restored ventilation began dissipating the contamiated atmosphere in the work areas. Testing the quality of air was continued until it became safe for the workers return. Relatively safe working conditions were nearly restored upon the arrival of the relieving shift.
Each return to the surface was a relief from the malodorous air underground which saturated skin and clothing. Both, reeking with the odors emitted by the fire, were in stark contrast to the clean, cold, crisp mountain air. Odors which repeated scrubbings under a hot shower could not totally eliminate. Odors which laundering cycles could not completely remove from clothing. Odors which had become our constant companions.
Saturday, March 12, 1960
The crawl space was now extended to the set of entries leading to the return air shaft. the same area that Inspectors Tom Allamam, Mike Cordray, and I had reached three days ago. The distance of near one mile is but one measure of the feat accomplished. there is no measure nor words to accurately describe the work, toil, and sweat expended in reaching this point under existing conditions. Yes, ther job could have been expedited by the use of explosives as suggested had conditions permitted. Only the fragile, heat-weakened concrete-clock stoppings separated fire and work areas which the mildest of concussions could destroy. Even now, only one location along the entire route tested free of carbon monoxide. The carved passgeway now permitted rescue teams to reach the new base with their equipment and protective respiratory apparatus. the CHEMOXand McCAA self-contained breathing apparatus along with the Universal Gas Mask were now available.
The company's rescue team from Red Jacket, WV was exploring some 800 feet ahead of the new fresh-air base at 5:45 p.m. when dense was encountered coming from No. 4 Main Entry. The impaired visibility forced their retreat and the installation of ventilation controls to clear the smoke. They then assumed the role of back-up team for the Company's Rockhouse Division team renewing the search. When turned back by hazardous roof conditions, the remainder of the shift required installing roof supports in that area.
Here, the term 'fresh-air base" was a misnomer. As throughout the operation so far, the atmosphere contained an average of .04 percent carbon monoxide. While this concentration is not deadly, CO has an accumulative effect during exposure. The hemoblobin in blood has an affinity for CO 300 times greater than oxygen. This accumulative was responsible for some workers requiring hospitalization.