The Boneyard

The Orient No.2 Coal Mine Explosion    - History

by Desiree Southern Ratay
EvansvilleBoneyard.Org - John Baburnich

My grandfather, Charles Thomas Southern, was buried on Christmas day 1951. One hundred eighteen other men who worked at the Orient No. 2 Coal Mine located in Franklin County, Illinois were buried as well during the final days of December that same year.

A short time ago my father gave me a package containing a collection of fifty-year-old newspaper articles pertaining to the accident that claimed my grandfather's life. Thirty-five years after I first heard my grandmother tell the story of a horrendous mine explosion that changed her and her sons' world forever, I found myself face to face with the black and white details of the catastrophe. I breathlessly read and re-read the words on the yellowed pages with a sacred awe. My tears spilled onto the newspapers and mingled with the tearstains left by one of my grief-filled family members one-half century ago. I knew by heart the ending to the story I read, and yet as I read the words I found myself praying for a different outcome to the tragic sequence of events.

December 21, 1951 began no more spectacularly than any other pre-Christmas day in the rural coal mining towns of Franklin County, southern Illinois. Surely there was the same pre-holiday feeling in the air that occurs each year, the palpable feeling created by everyone's combined anticipation for the approaching Christmas holiday. There was certainly no sense of foreboding or danger. The women packed their husbands' dinner pails and kissed them as they left for work just like any other day. It was supposed to be the last working shift at the West Frankfort Orient #2 Coal Mine before the miners' Christmas vacation was to begin.

At 4:00 p.m. on Thursday evening December 21, 1951 two hundred eighteen men reported to work for the second shift at the mine. In 1951 the Orient #2 was the largest shaft mine in the country. Most of the men were proud to be working at the mine and providing a decent living for their families. Before descending into the earth each man retrieved his metal, fire-check tag punched with his specific number and his headlamp from a board in the lamp house. Next, the men went down into the mine, load after load, in a clanging, creaking, steel cage operated by mechanical pulleys until all two hundred eighteen of them were beneath the earth.

As the men waited for their turn in the cage the prevailing mood must have been particularly light and jovial. I imagine that there were many excited conversations about upcoming Christmas celebrations and family gatherings. As the cage landed each man departed to his given work location in the mine to meet up with his particular crew. My grandfather was a face boss, who was working with a crew of sixteen men.

The miners were just a few hours away from the beginning of their Christmas vacations when at 7:40 p.m. a blast ripped through the tunnels. It occurred about two miles back from the shaft, and it shattered supporting timbers for three miles in the sprawling mine, which covered a twelve-mile area. Paul Donahue, a night dispatcher at the mine, told of trying to spread the alarm when the explosion struck. His station was about 350 feet from the main shaft. "There was a terrific sound, like a thud", Donahue reported to the Benton Evening News in 1951. "It numbed my ears; I yelled, 'Boys there's an explosion. We better get out'." He said he tried to spread the alarm through the mine but was unable to do so because the switchboard power had been cut off. Four or five minutes later, he said there was a terrific roaring wind, which filled the tunnel with dust. Swallowed in darkness and searching for a way out, he followed a railroad track to the elevator in the main shaft before he lost consciousness. He was later rescued.

The January 1, 1952 United Mine Workers Journal reported that normally 300 men worked on the second shift, but only 257 men were in the mine that night. Many, who were in areas remote from the blast area, about two miles northwest of the No. 4 shaft, were able to escape. Of these, a large number returned to help with the rescue work in which a total of 500 men were engaged at the height of the rescue mission.

After the explosion, the whistle blew at the portal alerting all within hearing distance that an accident had occurred at the mine. Rescue workers from all over southern Illinois converged on the scene. As word quickly spread throughout the county, family members desperate for news about their loved ones began arriving at the site. Many of them kept around the clock vigils until they received definite information on the fate of their men. They waited, they hoped, and they prayed. As the massiveness of the tragedy became evident more and more national reporters arrived, joining the already present local reporters to relay the details of the tragedy to the waiting public.

John L. Lewis, United Mine Workers of America President, John Forbes, Director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, and Oscar Chapman, Secretary of the Interior, flew from Washington DC on 12-23-51 and went below the surface with rescue workers for a personal inspection of the damaged sections. Chapman ordered one dozen federal mine inspectors to open an investigation into the tragedy. Illinois Governor, Adlai Stevenson, and Walter Edie, Illinois Director of Mines, visited the mine in the days following the explosion as well.

It was discovered that the terrible force of the explosion knocked mine cars weighing several tons off their tracks and snapped 12 by 12 timbers like twigs. The maximum force of the explosion extended the full length of two passageways, or more than a mile, and was followed by clouds of dense smoke which permeated throughout the mine and its shafts and interfered with the work of rescuers. Asbestos-clad rescue workers, which included brothers, sons and fathers of the trapped men, worked feverishly to reach them. They first concentrated on the task of searching for men who had survived the blast, but as they advanced through the gas-filled tunnels along which the bodies of many miners were lying, they soon realized the futility of this effort. Twenty-eight bodies were recovered in the first 24 hours, and the estimates of the numbers of victims were increased from hour to hour. The rescue work began immediately after the explosion and proceeded slowly under extremely difficult conditions for three days. Equipped with gas masks, and with their miners' cap lamps providing the only illumination in the black, smoke-filled tunnels, the rescue teams bravely penetrated two to three miles through the underground passageways and carried out bodies one by one. They sometimes had to crawl on their hands and knees to carry the bodies as far as two miles before they could be loaded onto underground motorcars. They groped through dark, rock-strewn tunnels and quickly erected temporary barricades to act as air stops to protect them from the carbon monoxide filled air. Many of the rescue workers were temporarily overcome by gas and emerged gasping and coughing. Several cave-ins further added to the difficulties of their work, and yet these brave men determinedly returned time and time again with the hope of finding a brother miner still alive.

As the bodies were recovered from the mine, they were taken to the junior high school auditorium in West Frankfort, which had been converted into a temporary morgue to accommodate the rising number of dead. Terrified, grief-stricken family members walked between the rows of bodies covered by tarps from the feet up. The tarps were pulled back, one by one, until each body was recognized and identified. Almost all of the bodies bore marks indicating they had been hurled against the walls or machinery. Many were charred and their clothing seemed to have been burned, evidently by the flash of the blast. Expert observers said there could not have been enough oxygen left to support a fire after the explosion. Those not killed directly by the blast were killed by carbon monoxide after the blast consumed the healthy oxygen in the tunnels. Death by carbon monoxide poisoning was the fate of my grandfather.

Medical evidence indicated that most of the men died almost instantly, though one, Cecil Sanders, survived a 60-hour ordeal. He was the only survivor in the explosion-devastated area of the mine. When Sanders described his experience, he said, "We knew the only thing to do was find a fresh air course. There were eight or nine men in my bunch and we began to put up brattices. We tried to put up canvas curtains so the gas would go around us. But the gas current was so strong it caught us between two air courses. We knew the only thing to do was find a hole and hope the gas would go over us. We ran back into the rocks just as far as we could go. But it wasn't far enough. The gas seemed to cover us. Then a little while later - I don't know just when - I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was on a big pile of rocks. I tried to stand up but all I could do was sit up. How long I had been in that shape, I don't know but after a long time I saw a beam of light and there were men coming through the smoke." "'Help me, boys, help me,' I called. Somebody said, 'My God, there is a man alive.'"

Cecil Sander's family's prayers were answered after 60 terrifying hours; but for 119 other families hope turned to tears. Prayers for the safe return of their loved ones from beneath the earth turned to prayers for comfort a few days later as they returned the bodies of their men to the earth and released their souls to heaven. The heart-wrenching task of burying the dead began Christmas Eve when 18 funerals were held. 24 funerals, including my grandfather's, were scheduled for Christmas day, and the remainder for December 26th. The weather was cold and drizzly as funeral corteges shuttled back and forth for three days down West Frankfort and Benton's main streets. What were to have been joyful Christmas celebrations became mournful funeral processions and final farewells to 119 beloved men of Franklin County, Illinois.

The 1-15-52 edition of the United Mine Workers Journal reported that a team of six federal experts concluded that the caving of the roof in the abandoned areas of the mine, plus the partial short-circuiting of the air current due to the opening of a ventilating door, caused a "large body of gas" to push out of the abandoned area into the active working section. The single ventilating door, which was open to allow cars and locomotives to move through, also allowed the body of gas to move through. Investigators said it was evident that a moving column of gas, rather than a standing body of gas, was ignited.

Two shuttle cars in non-permissible condition were the first ignition source this body of gas contacted, they reported. It was not known whether the cars were in operation. Two electric drills, also in non-permissible condition, were the second source the gas reached. The drills were reported to have been operating at the time of the explosion.

Further spread of the explosion was halted when it reached areas where it could expand into open workings and where enough rock dust had been applied to retard propagation of a flame. These conditions made it possible for 133 men in unaffected regions to make their way to the surface uninjured and unaided. Four other men were rescued, one of whom later died in the hospital.

Contrary to federal findings, Walter Edie, the Illinois Director of Mines, laid considerable stress on smoking as a possible source of ignition. He also mentioned in his state investigation report the possibility of "an electric spark from a moving electric locomotive" being a possible source of ignition. Federal investigators reported that cigarettes were found near the bodies of two men, but they stated definitely that there was no evidence that the men were smoking or lighting cigarettes at the instant of ignition. It is important to note that a thorough search failed to locate either matches or a lighter.

Federal inspectors had made recommendations at both Centralia and West Frankfort, which if they had been followed would have saved the miners' lives. (On March 25, 1947 111 miners lost their lives in a similar explosion in Centralia, Illinois.) During the last inspection before the explosion at West Frankfort, twenty-one of the violations of the Federal Safety Code were still uncorrected from previous inspections. Representative Melvin Price (Democrat - Illinois) said shortly after the explosion, "Federal inspectors could only recommend that these safety violations be corrected. Had the Federal law the teeth it required and a bill which I have pending in this Congress, H.R. 268, will give to it, the mine operators would have been compelled to comply with the inspector's recommendation or be subject to strong penalty, and if the inspector found imminent danger the legislation provides authority to close the mine."

Reemphasizing the UMWA's persistent efforts to obtain more effective safety measures on a permanent national basis, John L. Lewis declared: "There should be more frequent federal inspections of our mines and the federal inspectors should be given the authority to enforce their safety recommendations. These inspections should be made regardless of cost. We do not believe the value of human lives can be measured in dollars." He added, "It is a sad commentary that our legislatures only focus on mining problems after they are shocked into shame. I hope they are ashamed now that they did not listen to the pleadings of the men in the mining industry after the Centralia disaster. I hope our legislators will consider the men who are doomed to die in future mine disasters unless action is taken."

In 1952, after John L. Lewis eloquently and passionately argued for improvements in mine safety standards, Congress amended and strengthened the 1941 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. The amendment gave federal mine inspectors the power to close a mine if they deemed it unsafe. The deaths averted by this amendment are incalculable.

The one hundred nineteen men who were killed in the Orient No. 2 disaster left 301 dependents. 109 of them were widows, 175 were children under the age of 18, and 17 were other family dependents. The average age of the men who died was 40.9 years. The youngest man was 19; the oldest was 64. Added together, their total life expectancy was 3,438 years. These years represent the real time of children without fathers and grandfathers, wives without husbands, and parents without sons. Two generations later, the grandchildren and great grandchildren of these lost men weep. We weep to have never known our grandfathers' unconditional love, or to have never seen their benevolent smiles directed at us. We weep to have never heard their laughter or benefited from their years of life and wisdom.

I lost a grandfather as well as a step grandfather in the Orient #2 mine explosion of 1951. I have seen and felt first hand the far-reaching generational effects that this catastrophe has had on the surviving families of the men killed. I imagine the effects have been similar for many of the families who were touched by the explosion. Each Christmas season it was a struggle for my grandmother to put on a happy mask for her family while at the same time mourning her beloved husband. I caught her many times with silent tears rolling down her cheeks as she put the finishing touches on a favorite holiday treat or while she sat alone in the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights. Over the past fifty Christmases since their father's death, it has obviously been a struggle for my father and uncle as well to gather the strength to separate the pain of the past from the joy of the present. While interviewing my father and uncle, I was given the blessed gift of their memories of joy and pain. They so generously allowed me to delve into their emotions. After many years of sheltering their pain and holding their memories close, I saw them sharing their individual and mutual memories with each other, comparing and filling in the gaps, happy to be telling their stories and passing on the legacy of their father to their children and grandchildren.

There are people who touch and inspire us through the ages, whose spirits shore up, give strength and impart wisdom to the family long after they have departed this earth. The memory of who they were and how they touched others inspire us. My Grandpa Charlie is one of these men to my family. His spirit guided my dad and uncle into manhood. With the help of my grandmother's love-filled stories, I know my grandfather even though I never had the honor of meeting him. I know him in the light that I see twinkling from the eyes of anyone who knew him and hears his name mentioned. I know him in the soft, gentle eyes of my father and in the full, infectious laugh of my uncle, as well as in the generous, kind hearts of them both. In each of my cousins I sense a unique portion of his spirit shining forth as well. And now when looking at my own two children, three generations removed from their great-grandfather, I see a part of Charlie still living and breathing, loving and laughing. Many years after the warmth of his physical presence was abruptly taken from his family, the spirit of Charlie remains in the hearts and lives of all who knew him or who heard the stories of him. It is proof that what is good never truly dies.

Today my uncle, Phil Southern, and his son, Seven Southern, as well as my father, Lowell Southern, continue to work in the coal industry. My uncle is the owner of Repair King, a company in Shinnston, West Virginia that refurbishes mining equipment and manufactures new equipment for the coal mining industry. He is an inventor with the intention to make the work of today's coal miners easier, more productive, and safer. Recently, my uncle commissioned a 21-foot tall sculpture of a coal miner to be placed outside his Repair King Business. In memory of his father, the statue is named "Charlie". The engraved marker beside the statue reads, "This Memorial is dedicated to the lives of the Coal Miners who toiled to provide the energy that fueled the economies of the world, providing heat, steam and steel. May God Bless These Gallant men." The legacy of Charlie Southern and the coal mining industry remains very much a presence in my family's lives.

Ms. Southern Ratay invites your comments.

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