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Cincinnati Mine blast claimed 98 men a century ago

| Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 1:31 a.m.
Miners' families wait for news outside the Cincinnati mine in Courtney, Pa., on April 23, 1913 (Photo courtesy of United States Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration - MSHA.)
River tipple showing crowd waiting for news after the explosion. April 23, 1913 (Photo courtesy of United States Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration - MSHA.)
Miranda Startare | For The Valley Independent

Every day at the end of his shift, Emile Leroy's dog arrived at the mine opening to greet him.

On April 23, 1913, the dog waited patiently outside the Cincinnati Mine in Courtney – throughout the day and into the night – for its master. Witnesses described the dog's occasional whining before the animal finally left after the second day.

Leroy's body ultimately was the first identified among 98 victims of an explosion that rocked the mine and the nearby communities.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the explosion at the Cincinnati Mine.

A powerful blast in the mine, two miles northeast of Courtney, shattered windows within several hundred yards – and shattered many more lives.

On that April morning, like many mornings at the mine, foreman William McNeil decided the miners would wear open lamps – with exposed flames – as opposed to safety lamps with enclosed flames.

According to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine's Report, 1913, a miner, upon returning from lunch, broke through a wall, liberating gases within, and the collected gases were ignited by the miner's open lamp.

The miner's body was found more than 30 feet from the face of the wall where the explosion occurred.

Following that explosion, the flames, further ignited by coal dust, shot through 3,000 feet of the underground mine, and the maze of side tunnels.

The intensity of the explosion destroyed the 9-inch-thick brick walls of the machine boss' workshop. Debris was scattered throughout the 3-mile-long mine.

Most of the victims were killed by the flames or the force of the explosion. Approximately 20 died of suffocation in the afterdamp – a dangerous combination of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane – that followed the explosion.

Superintendent William Carter and other mine officials rushed to the scene. So did family members of the miners, awaiting the fate of their loved ones.

Breathing apparatus needed to enter the mine for rescue efforts had to be unloaded from a train and taken by wagon two miles to the mine.

Susan Bowers, president of the Monongahela Area Historical Society, said residents in Monongahela could feel the vibrations from the explosion. Elementary students at the new Lincoln Elementary school felt the blast, many of them unaware their fathers were among those killed.

“I look at it from the perspective of the women who were totally dependent on their husbands to support them and their families,” Bowers said. “There were women who lost their husbands and had no means to take care of their children.”

Bowers is still touched by a photograph, now in the Library of Congress, titled “Finleyville - at Mouth of Mine.” It was taken at the Route 88 mine opening with people standing behind a rope waiting for word of the survivors – and the victims.

“You could just see the devastation on the faces of the women,” Bowers said. “And there's a little girl in the center of the photo with her hands on her face in horror.”

Another victim to be reported soon after the rescue efforts began was Thomas Carter, 25-year-old son of the mine boss. The boss' other son, 22-year-old Joseph Carter, had to put out the flames on his brother's clothing before being forced to leave his deceased brother to escape the mine.

The breathing apparatus used by rescue workers was responsible for the death of one rescuer, William McColligan, 33, of Jacobs Creek. Faulty connections permitted the toxic air in the mine to invade the device as he was overcome by the afterdamp.

R.B. Brewer of Greensburg, whose son worked in the mine, received a letter from his son April 17. In the letter his son wrote, “I very near lost my mule here the other day; the gas took fire and burned very near all the hair off my mule, and I had to run to get away myself.”

His son did not survive the April 23 explosion.

One survivor, Robert Carten of Gastonville, recalled overhearing a conversation among the mine foreman, Assistant Foreman Joseph Weldon, and miner Victor Amprimis concerning fears of firing shots (to loosen coal) because of “too much gas.”

Carten saw the three men return to the mine. Their bodies were later discovered.

Sixty-seven miners escaped. Two others were rescued 60 hours later – Charles Crall of Monongahela, and Phillip Legler of Elkhorn.

They had collected dinner buckets to sustain themselves while awaiting rescue. Crall later said that the force at his workplace was slight, and he continued loading coal into cars.

Rescuers entering the mine witnessed areas of destruction as well as areas where dinner buckets still sat upright and untouched. The final hours, minutes, and seconds of the miners could be witnessed in each section of the mine – the last work they did, how they tried to survive.

The miners inside faced the uncertainty of surviving long enough to be rescued. Rescue workers discovered, written on a 10-inch by 12-inch timber, two miners' inscriptions: “Time OK 1:35, OK 1:55, wrote 1:15. Wm McD, H. McD. We lived after the explo. Tell brother Wm to be good to mother and the rest and live rithous [sic]. We die rithous[sic] and trust in God written Orson.”

The two miners were soon rescued.

Other survivors of the initial blast were not as fortunate. As miners crawled out of the debris-scattered mine with handkerchiefs stuffed in their mouths, companions were overcome by gas, one by one.

Some men were found with coats wrapped around their heads, trying to avoid the afterdamp, which inevitably took their lives.

In the weeks following the disaster, many witnesses were interviewed. They detailed the rocky history of one of the oldest mines in the country – having opened 80 years prior to the 1913 explosion.

Previous explosions had occurred, with one occurring 31 years earlier, that blew mule cars into the Monongahela River.

Carter testified that workers did not wish to use safety lamps if open light could be used, because the safety lamps reduced visibility.

The reduced visibility reduced the coal they mined each day – thus, reducing their wages, he argued.

Ultimately, a coroner's jury concluded that the “legal responsibility” should be placed on the mine foreman and “moral responsibility” on mining laws of the state of Pennsylvania for not making it mandatory to use safety lamps.

It was recommended that “all the mines in the district in which the Cincinnati Mine is located should be worked exclusively with locked safety lamps.”

This practice, according to the jury, would have made the chances of the disaster very remote.

Today, a historical marker placed by Peters Creek Historical Society stands near an entrance to the mine, not far from Finleyville, on Route 88, honoring those 98 men who lost their lives that day.

The blast also had a ripple effect in Monongahela. Most of the miners were city residents, Bowers said. When you have that many lives lost, downtown businesses lost patrons.

“I'm sure it had a devastating effect,” Bowers said. “Mining was a difficult occupation.”

Miranda Startare is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media. Trib Total Media staff writer Chris Buckley contributed to this report.

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