Kemmerer suffered its greatest tragedy in history this week when an explosion sniffed out the lives of ninety-nine men in Frontier Mine No. 1 of the Kemmerer Coal company one mine north of this city.
Homage Is Paid Our Miner Dead
|Within a short time all roads and paths from town to the mine were filled with wives, children, and friends of the imprisoned men.|
Homage Is Paid Our Miner Dead
One hundred and thirty-six miners entered the shaft on the day shift at 7:30 Tuesday morning and within an hour--probably at 8:15--a terrific explosion, caused, company officials believe, by a "blown out shot," rocked the workings, taking the greatest toll of death in Wyoming since the tragedy of Hanna, back in 1903.
Today one of the most impressive services in the annals of the state was held in the triangular park, when words of sympathy and consolation were poured out to relatives and friends of the dead men by bishop, priest, minister, and public officials, at a community memorial services participated in by virtually every resident of Kemmerer, and hundreds from nearby towns.
First word of the explosion was brought to the downtown district of Kemmerer about 9 o'clock Tuesday morning. No details were known at that time, but within an hour the mouth of the doomed mine was surrounded by scores of sorrowing, hysterical women, children and the entombed miners, and men from all walks of life prepared to put forth every effort, even to the supreme sacrifice, in trying to rescue the imprisoned men alive.
Wives, daughters, sisters and sweethearts of the trapped men stood about the portals of the mine, hoping and praying that some miracle would return their loved ones to the surface alive.
No disorder marked the sorrowful scenes at the man-way of Frontier No. 1, only the outpouring of fear and frenzy over the safety of 136 men under ground. Officials of the coal company, under the personal direction of President P.J. Quealy, rapidly gathered together volunteer rescue workers and the first batch to enter the mine was composed of about 30 men. Because of the conditions in the mine they were forced to work in relays clearing away the rockfall and debris caused by the explosion and it was nearly 2 o'clock in the afternoon before any of the entrapped men were located.
The first party of workers to be rescued alive were brought to the surface about 3 o'clock.
Tales of heroism, of men giving their lives that others might survive the terrible disaster, abounded on the surface at the mouth of the mine Wednesday , where hundreds, including the wives and children of the dead miners, gathered waiting for the rescue of the men.
Joe Nagi and Tony Babitch, miners, whose bodies were brought to the surface among the first taken from the mine, gave their lives that twenty-two of their fellows might live.
John Sager Jr., fire boss in the mine, also stands out as one of the dead heroes of the disaster. Nagi and Babitch, trapped with twenty-seven men, locked their companions in chamber twenty-seven of the wrecked mine and went into the gas-filled passages themselves in a vain effort to effect a rescue. Twenty-two of the miners they locked in the chamber were brought out alive. Nagi and Babitch died in their efforts at rescue.
Segar, caught with eleven men in the workings, left them in a safety zone while he went out in an effort to find a way to safety for his fellows:
"You wait here, boys" was Segar's parting words as he left his fellow miners. He never came back. His body was found with others.
Sam Bott, who has been employed in the Frontier mine for some years, gave a graphic description of his experiences while entombed. He was rescued after he had been imprisoned for seven and one-half hours, during which he saw a number of his companions suffocated:
"I was in No. 19 entry when the explosion came," Bott said. "It did not knock us down. It was like a big gust of wind. It carried fragments of coal, some as large as my fist through the air. My partner, Faustino, shouted that there had been an explosion and told us all to lie down on our faces.
"We did, but after a while some of the boys started crawling aways to the slope. I crawled out to the slope and encountered the smoke and crawled back. Then I crawled the other way, but couldn't find the outlet. We found there was good air in the back of the entry. We stayed there. On one side we blocked up the passage so the gas couldn't get to us. Then we hung a brattice across the other end. Sometimes we called for help, but we didn't shout very long, because we knew that it wouldn't do much good. Once, when I crawled out toward the slope, I almost lost consciousness and someone carried me back. On the way I passed six bodies of men who had been my friends.
"We almost gave up hope, but finally the rescuers came. I cannot speak well enough to tell how I felt when I found my wife, my two boys and my two daughters waiting for me at the manway entrance."
|Daily News Frederick Maryland 21 Aug 1923|
The first dead were taken in automobile truck to Odd Fellows Hall, where members of the I.O.O.F. and volunteer workers started the task of arranging and identifying the victims.
Eighty-eight bodies had been recovered from the mine at an early hour Wednesday morning, and it was a ghastly scene that met the eyes of visitors at the two temporary morgues, where the bodies had been about evenly divided for identification. Strong, upstanding men, miners, merchants and professional men worked in sorrowing silence as they arranged the bodies to be prepared for burial. Only a few were burned, the vast majority of the victims having been suffocated from the terrible black damp--the coal miner's menace. This made the work of identification a comparatively easy task, although some little confusion arose because several identification checks had been mixed.
In discussing the cause of the explosion, President Quealy, of the Kemmerer Coal company, gave out the following statement:
"The cause of the explosion at Frontier No. 1, has not yet been determined, but everything indicates a blow out shot probably in entry thirty, the last entry of the mine. One hundred miners and 36 day men were in the mine at the time of the explosion. Thirty-seven were taken out alive. We believe ventilation has been fully restored throughout the mine.
"The fan was not displaced, outside of the stoppings that were blown out of the slope.
"Men entered the mine immediately after the car that was on the way down the slope was derailed--directly after the explosion."
Mr. Quealy announced immediately following the explosion that absolutely no outside aid, from Red Cross or other sources, would be necessary to care for dependents of the stricken workmen. In addition to provisions of the state compensation law, which adequately provides for widows and children of killed workmen, Mr. Quealy intimated that the company was prepared to see that no one suffered any inconveniences aside from the terrible bereavement they had undergone.
Mr. Lester Pratt, secretary of the Kemmerer Coal Company, declared that the physical condition of Frontier Mine. No. 1 was unchanged as a result of the explosion. Except from debris, rockfall and a small cave in about midway of the tunnel, little damage has been done.
Mr. Pratt said the company's greatest concern was over the loss of lives and expressed the deepest sympathy, personally, and on behalf of the company for the stricken widows and children.
Mr. Pratt said Frontier Mine No. 1 had undergone periodical inspections and announced that State Mine Inspector Pete Paterson, of Rock Springs, Wyo., had arrived in the city on the date of the explosion to start another periodical inspection of the all the mines in the Frontier camp.
State Mine Inspector Paterson had no statement to issue pending inspection of the mine where the explosion occurred. He spent some time in the underground tunnel aiding in the rescue work.
Despite grim tragedy stalking through Kemmerer as a result of the disastrous explosion, the towns folk remained calm under their great burden. Hardly a family in the community but was directly affected through the death of the 99 men.
As the work of identification and preparing bodies progressed at the Kemmerer Hardware and Furniture company's morgue in Odd Fellows Hall, and at Fitzpatrick's parlors, long lines of mourners, wives, daughters, and other relatives, passed through the aisles, lifting the white canvas sheets that covered the corpses, seeking to identify the departed one who had been the family bread winner.
Deep grief pervaded the frame cottage houses that are scattered along the northern end of the city, from whence the father and brother had departed to their untimely death in the Frontier mine.
The hysteria which followed the first few hours after the explosion quickly disappeared. When the news of the disaster swept through the little town, women and children in all manner and state of dress ran to the mouth of the mine, weeping and calling for their loved ones trapped in the workings.
From all sections of Wyoming relatives and friends of the explosion victims came to Kemmerer Tuesday. A roped barrier was stretched at the mouth of the mine to hold back the hundreds who gathered around it and prevent hindrance to the efforts of the rescue crews.
At the mouth of the mine, officials established a first aid station, and as survivors of the disaster were brought out, emergency treatment was administered by a corps of doctors, nurses and Red Cross workers. These remained at the mouth of the mine throughout the day and night ministering to those who were not beyond human aid.
On going into the mine, after the explosion, the first thought of the rescue crew was to search for the living. The dead, found scattered through the workings, remained untouched until it was determined that all the men who had not died from deadly blackdamp had been taken from the various chambers in which they sought safety.
At 8 o'clock Tuesday night, when it was established definitely that no more than thirty-six men were alive in the mine, the work of recovering the dead began. The first bodies were brought to the surface soon afterward.
Within the mine signs of the brave struggle for life made by the explosion victims were found by the rescue crews. In places they found the discarded tools of the miners, thrown away as they vainly sought shelter in some one of the mine chambers, only to be enveloped soon afterward by the deadly gas.
Wednesday virtually all wreckage had been removed from the mine. The interior is not nearly as badly wrecked as was first believed.
One party composed of thirty-two men brought from the mine alive made a gallant fight for their lives. When the report of the blast which wrecked the mine was heard in a chamber which they occupied, the men set to work immediately to perfect a barricade which would keep back the dreaded black-damp.
With bits of canvas and clothing torn from their bodies, they closed every crevice in the barricade and hours later rescue workers found them alive in the chamber. All were laying on the floor, apparently none the worse from the experience. As they left the mine, these men passed beside the dead bodies of their companions who, it is said, had failed to heed the safety measure adopted by those who came out the disaster alive.
The other men brought out of the mine alive adopted similar emergency measures. They were found lying on the floor of the chamber.
Another miner, was reached too late by the rescue crew, which found him lying in the main slope. He was alive, and was rushed to the surface. Before he reached the mine portal he had expired. Doctors at the portal of the mine spent considerable time in an effort to revive him, but the task was finally given up. On the 1700-foot level of the workings smoke blackened embers of mine cars, buried in the cave-in, gave rise to the belief that fire had broken out. This was later found not to be the case.
Fully 100 voluntary workers went into the mine to rescue the living and remove the dead before the arrival of the United States bureau of mine rescue crew.
All of the men brought from the workings alive were blackened by smoke and suffering intensely from bad air. None of them is expected suffer permanently from the gas and smoke encountered in the interior of the great hole.
Alec Inama and Pete Tapero were two of the first men to be brought from the mine alive. They had been at work in a section near the shaft. By groping their way through the intense smoke and darkness, dust and gas, they reached the point from which they were rescued within a few hours.
First intimation to outside workers that a disaster had occurred came shortly after 8:30 o'clock Tuesday morning, when dense clouds of smoke begun pouring from the fan house.
Immediately investigations were began, and an effort was made to learn the plight of the men trapped beneath the surface. Quickly the news of the disaster spread to Kemmerer and environs, and within a short time all roads and paths from the town to the mine were filled with wives, children and friends of the imprisoned men.
Intensely pathetic scenes were enacted at the portal of the mine. Hysterical women, weeping children and friends, whose tear-filled eyes gave unmistakable evidence of the grief, surrounded the black mouth of the mine, waiting and hoping that all might be well with those below.
Scenes at the mouth of the mine as the living men came to the surface were touching. Women who had believed themselves widowed by the disaster, and children who had given up hope for the rescue of their fathers, rushed into the arms of their loved ones. Close by, watching these scenes of rejoicing, stood other women and children, hoping against hope that they, too, might have the good fortune of greeting a husband or father alive.
This was not to be, for soon rescue workers appeared at the portal, bearing the dead of the disaster, blackened by the dense smoke and burned and blistered. As the rescue crews appeared there was a great forward charge of the hundreds gathered outside the barricades.
In their grief they tore away the rope barrier erected to hold them back and surged about the rescue crews to look at the dead or seek news of those still within the wrecked interior.
Even while Kemmerer was a city of sorrow, with grief plainly written on the faces of those who were fortunate in losing no relatives in the disaster, and while the scraggy lawns surrounding the small frame cottages in which many victims lived were dotted with groups of sympathizing friends, plans went forward Wednesday and Thursday for the burial of the dead miners.
Funeral arrangements were under the direct auspices of Frontier Local No. 2360, United Mine Workers of America.
At a meeting of this local Wednesday night, attended by Harry W. Fox, president of the Wyoming State Federation, it was decided to hold a public memorial service in the city park at 2 p.m., Friday.
All fraternal and civic organizations in the city have been invited to participate and the local civic authorities have issued a proclamation calling upon the townsfolk to observe the day as one of general mourning.
A platform will be erected in the center of the park, upon which will be the speakers and city officials. Caskets containing many of the dead will be set around the three sides of the triangle.
Rev. Father P.P. Szymanski, pastor of the local Catholic church, will offer prayer and benediction; Bishop Jenson of the Mormon church, will read a lesson from the Scriptures; Rev. Thomas Evans, of the Methodist church, will give the oration, and President Fox of the state federation of labor, will deliver an address of sympathy.
In the meantime, a score or more of bodies of the victims were buried in the hillside cemetery at Kemmerer, Thursday afternoon.
From early morning Thursday more than a hundred volunteer grave diggers, mostly former co-workers of the dead men from Evanston, Rock Springs, Elkol, and other Wyoming mining camps, had thrown dirt from the ground to make places for their departed brothers.
Brief funeral services were read by Father Szymanski and Rev. Evans.
One long tunnel was excavated as the burial place for 17 Japanese victims of the explosion.
Several bodies were shipped out of the city for burial.
E. W. Holmes, Lincoln County coroner, has empaneled a jury which will meet at 10 o'clock Friday morning to hold an inquest and try to determine the cause of the explosion. The jury is composed of Thomas Russell, superintendent of the Diamondville Coal and Coke company, George Brown, superintendent of the Union Pacific Coal Company, and William McAllister, a former miner and member of the Wyoming legislature, and now a justice of the peace.
The Kemmerer Camera, 17 August 1923, pages 1-2.