Centralia, IL Coal Mine Disaster, Mar 1947
LITTLE HOPE FOR 122 MINERS.
CENTRALIA DISASTER TUESDAY AFTERNOON MAY TAKE HEAVY TOLL.
ONLY NINE SURVIVORS OF 131 MEN AT WORK IN SHAFT HAD BEEN ACCOUNTED FOR AT MINE.
Centralia, Ill., March 26 -- (AP) -- Hope of life for the last of 122 men entombed by a coal mine explosion near here Tuesday afternoon all but flickered out today, but cheerless rescue workers kept digging away nevertheless in a gaseous, clogged-up passage 540 feet underground.
The picking and the toiling slow work in the thick of the lingering fumes, in about 20 hours had accounted for only nine survivors of the 131 who were caught in the blast just a few minutes before quitting time.
Old hands at such things were agreed: they didn't have a chance.
But the sleepless families of the men, quiet and staring, stayed on at the bleak tipple to face the worst.
Some Rescuers Saved.
The nine survivors did not include some rescue men who had rushed down the shaft, fallen in the fumes and been saved by others.
Some of the dead had been counted, but there was no hurry to get the bodies up to the top. The main effort was centered on burrowing through fallen timbers and other debris and sealing the rooms off one by one as they were searched.
FRED HELLMAYER, chief electrician of the mine -- the Centralia Coal Company's No. 5, at the south edge of Centralia -- went down the shaft shortly after the blast, and he was one of the first to say the men not saved in the first few hours didn't have a chance.
If the worst fears of experienced observers are borne out, this will be recorded as the nation's worst coal mine disaster in nearly 19 years. A total of 195 miners were killed at Mather, Pa., May 19, 1928.
Night Shift On Hand.
While the night shift stood around yesterday afternoon awaiting their time to go to work, a rumbling rush of air came up from the shaft and after it came a column of milky gray smoke. In the time it took for the word to spread, help was coming from over the country-side for miles around -- ambulances, doctors, nurses, disaster relief workers, and soldiers from Scott Field.
Held back by police lines, a crowd pressed around the pithead until long after midnight, standing in freezing weather and occasional spits of snow, as floodlights lit the scene, but today it had thinned out.
The talk of the mine people thinned out, too. They had less and less to say, and more of them stayed at home.
State Officials Arrive.
Starte officials were checking into the cause or causes. The immediate official explanation was coal dust.
The injured survivors were treated at an emergency medical station in Centralia's Community center and in a hospital. One managed a grin as he said: "I've dug my last mile of coal."
ELMER H. BAIRD, a "face" boss at the mine who went down last night and counted 14 bodies, put his anguish in these words today:
"I may be chicken-hearted, but every time I'd lie down to rest and close my eyes I'd see the bodies lyin' there. I'm not going home or leave here until -- well, until it's over."
"I tell you it's pretty tough to pass up the bodies of your buddies, but we have to pass them up now because there's a possibility there are a hundred men or more back in there still alive."
"I'm not saying how it happened -- only what could have happened. That is, those men heard the 'whoosh' of an explosion and ran out of their workings into the main passageway for fresh air."
"Then the fan stopped, the air reversed, and the 'black damp' probably doubled back and got them. As I say, that might have happened."
Dixon Evening Telegraph Illinois 1947-03-26