Wilkes-Barre, PA Coal Mine Disaster, June 1919 - Many Escaped

Many Who Escape Being Torn Asunder Fall Victims of Flames and Fumes While Attempting to Crawl to Safety, Catastrophe Follows Night of Festivity Over Return of Soldier Regiment.


WILKES-BARRE, Pa., June 5. —Eighty-three men lost their lives this morning as a result of an explosion blasting powder in a car attached to a train load of miners being transported to their work in Baltimore No. 2 mine of the Delaware & Hudson Coal company, while at least 31 were injured, according to a list given out by the company officials at noon.
More than 100 mineworkers were riding to their work, crowded into what is known as a trip of mine cars drawn by a motor. The rear car carried 12 kegs of black powder used for blasting loose the coal in the chambers. The mine is modern and equipped electrically. The trolley wire snapped when the train had gone about 200 feet from the entrance. The wire sputtered and sizzled and the sparks emitted touched off the powder.

The terrified men on the cars instantly were aware of the danger that confronted them, but they stood powerless to avert it.
There was a roar and in an instant every man and boy on the train was either dead or dying. Terribly mangled bodies were found everywhere by the rescue crews which instantly rushed into the mine. Fire fighters working frantically succeeded in an incredibly short time in subduing the flames which followed the blast.

Flames caused the greater loss of life. Many of the bodies were burned to a crisp. Other men who were burned and were trying to reach safety died of suffocation. When rescuers reached the tunnel there were dead and dying scattered everywhere. The injured were rapidly removed and sent to hospitals as quick as ambulances could be provided and the dead were brought out and placed in tiers on the green.

Doctors and nurses were somewhat late in arriving on the scene. This was because many of them were abed when the accident happened. Hospitals quickly filled and morgues were filled to overflowing.
Then came the gruesome work of taking out the dead and injured. Those who had not already succumbed were so badly burned that in nearly every case death is a matter of a short time.

Carelessness and violation of the mine laws of the state caused the great loss of life. One of the most drastic provisions of the anthracite mine code is the section forbidding the transportation of men on a car or train which carries explosives. Yet the train of little cars conveying its freight of miners had attached to its rear a dozen kegs of powder. Investigation will disclose whether the men or the company is responsible for the violation of the law.

Some of the first bodies brought from the tunnel were burning when they reached the surface. Clothes had been burned away and the flesh was roasting form the intense heat. Water was poured on these to put out the fire. It was such sights as this that made brave hearts turn sick.

Company employees state that there is a “pull” of 186,000 cubic feet of air per minute in the tunnel and that the air pulled in the flames from the powder directly over the men. Alongside of the tunnel there is a creek and after the flash of the flames some men who were walking along the side of the cars dropped into the water and saved their lives. Several employees state that it was not the force of the explosion that killed the men. Flames and the lack of air caused all the fatalities. All admit that the accident was the result of the violation of the law but they state that miners are accustomed to these violations.

Thomas Dougherty, a miner, one of the survivors who was thrown out of the car by the blast and saved himself by jumping into a ditch. He said:
“We were riding along about 50 feet in the tunnel. There was a blinding flash. I was thrown from the car. I saw the water and I huried myself into it. Bodies were all about. Some I know were dead, others were dying. The flames were terrific. They were all about. We were in a veritable hell. No man could possibly hope to escape with his life unless he got into the water, buried his face and rolled over and over as I did. There was powder in the car. There were about 10 kegs and besides there were kegs carried by the men. Of course I do not know what set them off but I believe that the trolley were broke and the sparks ignited the powder.

East End last night was the scene of great gayety. That section of the city welcomed home boys of the 311th Field Artillery Flags were flying, red fire burned, people laughed and shouted. Within 12 hours all was changed, many homes being made sad. Some of the soldiers had their joy turned into grief. Their fathers were among the dead.

The death list was made large by the flames and sulphur fumes which filled the tunnel. The fire did not last long but it was long enough to make a heavy death toll. Many were killed outright. Parts of bodies were found in the wreckage of life and property. Rescuers got into the mine with hose and played streams of water on the flames. While they were doing this the cries of dying and the injured were head above the roar of the flames.

The Weekly Courier, Connellsville, Pa 12 Jun 1919