Coal mining, especially underground coal mining can be a dangerous occupation. No matter how hard the safety coordinators tried to keep people safe, and no matter how stringent the safety regulations were, accidents happened and sometimes, lives were lost. Coal mining was especially dangerous when coal dust ignited. Explosions were the main cause of death in the mines,especially the underground mines. And that was just the instantaneous death. Breathing the dust caused a slow death over time. In 1883, the creation of the Norfolk and Western Railway opened a gateway to the untapped coalfields of southwestern West Virginia. New mining towns sprung up in the region practically overnight, with European immigrants and African Americans from the south pouring into southern West Virginia looking for work in the new industry. By the late 19th century, West Virginia was a national leader in the production of coal,but the state fell far behind other major coal-producing states in regulating the mining conditions. In addition to poor economic conditions, West Virginia had a higher mine death rate than any other state. Nationwide, a total of 3,242 Americans were killed in mine accidents in 1907, but no one accident could compare to the accident that was about to unfold as the year neared its end. No on was prepared for the horror that was to come in Monongah in December.
The worst mining accident in United States occurred on December 6, 1907. The mine was the Monongah Coal Mine in West Virginia’s Marion County. on that date, an explosion in a network of mines owned by the Fairmont Coal Company in Monongah killed 362 coal miners. Officially, there were 367 men in the two mines, but the actual number was much higher because officially registered workers often took their children and other relatives into the mine to help. No one thought of the practice as dangerous. At 10:28am an explosion occurred that killed most of the men inside the mine instantly. The blast went on to cause considerable damage to both the mine and the surface. The ventilation systems, necessary to keep fresh air supplied to the mine, were destroyed along with many rail cars and other equipment. The explosion blew the timbers supporting the roof down causing further issues when the roof collapsed. Investigators believed that an electrical spark or one of the miners’ open flame lamps ignited coal dust or methane gas, but the cause of the explosion was not determined.
Time was of the essence to bring people out of a mine accident alive, because at that time they didn’t know much about restoring the air supply to the people trapped below. The first volunteer rescuers entered the two mines 25 minutes after the initial explosion. The biggest threats to rescuers are the various fumes, particularly “blackdamp”, a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen that contains no oxygen, and “whitedamp”, which is carbon monoxide. The lack of breathing apparatus at the time made venturing into these areas impossible. Rescuers could only stay in the mine for 15 minutes at a time. In a vain effort to protect themselves, some of the miners tried to cover their faces with jackets or other pieces of cloth. While this may filter out particulate matter, it would not protect the miners in an oxygen-free environment. The toxic fume problems were compounded by the infrastructural damage caused by the initial explosion…mines require large ventilation fans to prevent toxic gas buildup, and the explosion at Monongah had destroyed all of the ventilation equipment. The inability to clear the mine of gases transformed the rescue effort into a recovery effort. One Polish miner was rescued and four Italian miners escaped. Following the accident, the United Mine Workers of America labor union and sympathetic legislators forced safety regulations that brought a steady decline in death rates in West Virginia and elsewhere.
Sometimes, the best of intentions can go horribly wrong, and when things go wrong, it becomes a disaster, and disaster is exactly what happened in Centralia, Pennsylvania when a fire was set to burn out an old landfill before the Labor Day holiday in 1962. The fire that was started on May 27, 1962, seemed like a simple solution to a big mess, but the landfill was also an old strip-mine pit, connected to a maze of abandoned underground mining tunnels full of coal. No one knows how the fire got to the coal vein below the ground, but once it did, the situation was out of control. Some called it careless trash incineration in a landfill next to an open pit mine, which ignited a coal vein, but no one expected the fire to crawl insidiously along the rich coal deposits that still laid deep in the ground. No one expected the burning coal to vent hot and poisonous gases up into town, through the basements of homes and businesses. Nevertheless, with dawn came the horror, as residents realized that the fire was not going to be extinguished, or in fact, ever burn itself out…at least not until all the interconnected coal veins in eastern Pennsylvania were finally burned out. As the underground fire worked its way under rows of homes and businesses, the threat of fires, asphyxiation, and carbon monoxide poisoning became a daily concern.
Probably one of the scariest situations was when a young man, Todd Domboski fell into a hot, steaming hole created by mine fire subsidence. He survived his 45 second ordeal by grabbing onto tree roots, and screaming for help until his cousin ran to his aid, reached into the void, and hoisted him out. Many Centralia residents had worried that a calamity like the one that nearly unfolded that Valentine’s Day in 1981. Four years earlier, Domboski’s father had told a reporter, “I guess some kid will have to get killed by the gas or by falling in one of these steamy holes before anyone will call it an emergency.” Never did he imagine that it would be his kid that would fall through and almost lose his life.
After the near tragedy, signs were posted to warn visitors to the Centralia area about the dangers of death by asphyxiation or being swallowed by the ground, but the old mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, was once home to more than 1,000 people. People with no place else to go. Now, it’s nothing more than a smoldering ghost town that’s been burning for over half a century. Though the town was able to extinguish the fire above ground, a much bigger inferno burned underneath, and it eventually spread its way under Centralia’s town center. The fire was so widespread, destructive and unending. It’s thought that there’s enough coal underground to fuel the fire for another 250 years. In 1980, a $42 million relocation plan incentivized most of the townspeople to relocate and most of the homes were demolished, leaving only about a dozen holdouts behind. Today, Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there. Still John Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures. Over the decades, the ground has opened up with sulfurous gases sometimes billowing out. The road along Highway 61 swells and cracks open. It is riddled with graffiti and hot to the touch. In the winter, snow melts in patches where the ground is warm. While a few holdouts still live there, I have to wonder what they are thinking. That is like slowly committing suicide, because you refuse to leave the past.