Monongah, WV Hundreds Die In Coal Mine Explosion, Dec 1907
The Monongah mining disaster of Monongah, West Virginia, occurred on December 6, 1907, and has been described as "the worst mining disaster in American History". The explosion occurred in Fairmont Coal Company’s No. 6 and No. 8 mines.
On Friday December 6, 1907 there were officially 367 men in the two mines. At 10:28 AM an explosion occurred that killed most of the men inside the mine instantly. The blast caused considerable damage to both the mine and the surface. The ventilation systems, necessary to keep fresh air supplied to the mine, were destroyed along with many railcars and other equipment. Inside the mine the timbers supporting the roof were blown down which caused further issues as the roof collapsed. An official cause of the explosion was not determined, but investigators at the time believed that an electrical spark or one of the miners' open flame lamps ignited coal dust or methane gas
During the early days of coal mining, time was of the essence to bring people out alive. The first volunteer rescuers entered the two mines twenty-five minutes after the initial explosion. The biggest threats to rescuers are the various fumes, particularly “blackdamp”, a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen that contains no oxygen, and “whitedamp”, which is carbon monoxide. The lack of breathing apparatus at the time made venturing into these areas impossible. Rescuers could only stay in the mine for 15 minutes at a time. In a vain effort to protect themselves, some of the miners tried to cover their faces with jackets or other pieces of cloth. While this may filter out particulate matter, it would not protect the miners in an oxygen-free environment. The toxic fume problems were compounded by the infrastructural damage caused by the initial explosion: mines require large ventilation fans to prevent toxic gas buildup, and the explosion at Monongah had destroyed all of the ventilation equipment. The inability to clear the mine of gases transformed the rescue effort into a recovery effort. Only one man, a Hungarian by the name of John Tomko, was rescued from the mine. The official death toll stood at 362, but it is possible the number is much higher since mining companies at the time did not keep accurate records of their workers.