Wilkes-Barre, PA Coal Mine Disaster, June 1919 - Flames Sucked Into Mine

Flames Sucked Into Mine

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. Along the side of the tunnel there is a creek and at the flash of the flames some men who were walking along the side of the trip of 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 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.

Story of Survivor.

Thomas Dougherty, a miner, one of the survivors, was thrown out of a car by the blast and saved himself by jumping into a ditch. He said:
“We were riding along about fifty feet in the tunnel. There was a blinding flash. I was thrown from the car. I saw the water and I hurried myself into it. Bodies were all about. Some I know were dead, others were crying. 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 in the water, buried his face and rolled over and over as I did. There was powder in and besides there were kegs carried by the men. Of course I do not know what set them off, but I believe the trolley broke and that sparks ignited the powder.”

It seems like irony of fate that over the mouth of the tunnel in great big white letters are painted the words “Safety First.”

Electric Light Ignites Powder.

The accident occurred shortly before 7 o’clock. A train of empty cars was sent tot the mouth of the tunnel to take the men into the chambers. One hundred men piled into the cars, which were drawn by an electric motor. Near the end of the train was a car of black powder. John McGroarty drove the motor.

When 200 feet in the tunnel, the trolley wire broke and fell. Sparks ignited the powder and instantly there was an explosion that sent bodies of men flying in all directions. The force was so terrific that it was heard through out the greater part of the city.

Flames Slay Greater Number.

Flames caused the greater loss of life, many of the bodies being burned to a crisp. Other men who were burned and who 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, sent to hospitals as quickly 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 reaching the scene. This was because that many of them were abed when the accident happened. Hospitals quickly filled and morgues were filled to overflowing.

Follows Night of Rejoicing.

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

Identification of the bodies is almost impossible; many of them are charred beyond recognition. The limbs of some, the heads of others are missing.

At 9:30 it was said between 75 and 100 were killed or had died from injuries.

Pitiful Scenes at Mines.

The death list is rapidly growing. As the bodies are removed from the mine, living and dead, they are piled on the green about the colliery. Many of the injured lived but a short time.

Hundreds of women, men and children gathered about the tunnel. Shrieking and crying, they lifted the blankets from the men, They were terrified at the sight. Women fainted; men lost their nerve, and children ran away in fright.

The bodies of scores have been removed to the morgues. There the work of identification is being carried out with little success. Brave men and women are seeking to aid the relatives, to give them news, but the scene is pitiful.

It has been established that the explosion was caused by a break in the trolley wire. This wire gained contact with the powder and sparks did the rest.

The dead list was made largely by the flames and the sulfur fumes which filled the tunnel. The fire did not last long, but it was long enough to make a heavy death toll.

Cries of Dying Above Roar of Flames.

Rescuers got into the mine with hose and played streams of water on the flames. While they were doing this the cries of the dying and the injured were heard above the roar of the flames.

Today’s catastrophe is next to the greatest this section of the anthracite coal field has seen. Today’s accident is a direct result of violation of the law. Permission was given to the men to ride this trip to their place of work and a special train was provided for that purpose. On these cars special seats are built and the train was in daily use.

The Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, Fort Wayne, IN 5 Jun 1919