The cinderblock buildings that gave access to Orient No. 2 mine’s Portal No. 4 are still standing six decades after 119 men who carved coal from the earth perished in a roaring, windy blast hundreds of feet below ground.
Equally intact are Marion Veach’s recollections of the gruesome chore he volunteered for in the aftermath of what’s still among the nation’s deadliest mining disasters. Helping bring the dead back to the surface after the December 1951 methane explosion, sometimes in pieces, is a haunting memory for Veach.
“It was very difficult, and I just can’t hardly talk about it without breaking down,” said the great-grandfather, haltingly. “I’m 83, and I’d just rather not go through it.”
Sixty years later, around the hardscrabble southern Illinois city of West Frankfort, the locals still consider it their “Black Christmas.” And on Wednesday, they’ll commemorate the anniversary with a service at the 8,200-resident town’s First Baptist Church, where a candle will be lighted for each of the dead miners and then extinguished as that victim’s name is read.
A moment of silence will mark the explosion that West Frankfort Mayor Tom Jordan calls “just one of those events that galvanizes a community” such as his – two hours southeast of St. Louis – where coal mining remains a source of livelihood, never mind its inherent perils.
“Through this life-changing tragedy, the town stuck together. And I’m proud of that,” said Jordan, who was a few months from birth when the disaster happened. He shunned a career in the mines, retiring two years ago after more than three decades as a firefighter.
The disaster wasn’t the worst in U.S. history or Illinois history. The nation’s deadliest came in 1907, when 362 were killed in an explosion near Monongah, W. Va., just two years before a fire claimed 259 workers at a mine in Cherry in north-central Illinois. The Orient tragedy wasn’t even the deadliest disaster in the town’s history; the 695 who died in the “Tri-State Tornado” in 1925 included 127 in West Frankfort, though ironically hundreds of miners were spared because they were working underground at the time.
The Orient No. 2 disaster helped hasten federal and state safety regulations that saved lives in the subsequent decades. The following summer, President Harry Truman signed the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act, giving inspectors the power to close unsafe mines. The Illinois Mining Act of 1953 mandated better mine ventilation and testing for methane.
The regulations were a considerable legacy for a catastrophe that forever scarred a time of good cheer.
On Dec. 21, 1951 – greeted by a chalkboard message “Merry Christmas to the Night Crew” at the mine’s entrance – Jack Summers and other miners with the Chicago, Wilmington and Franklin Coal Co. were working the last pre-holiday nighttime shift, settling down with their metal lunchboxes for dinner. That’s when Summers recalls the curious “big blast of wind” that came from another section of the mine.
“It was just like big thunder. A roar of wind come in there,” opening a weighty wooden door and instantly slamming it back shut, Summers, 92, said Tuesday.
The mine was cast into pitch blackness. Chocking dust and carbon monoxide followed.
More than half of the 200 men in the mine were killed, including Summers’ nephew. Summers and other survivors – those working far enough from the blast – meandered their way to safety, relying on the lights atop their miners’ hats and crank telephones on the mine’s walls to get directions from above during their two-hour journey out.
Word of the calamity filtered through nearby mining towns. At a high school basketball game, doctors and experienced miners were summoned to the Orient site. No details. Just an imperative to hustle. Many in the gymnasium cleared out, given that most in the area had relatives who mined or knew someone who did.
Many huddled around their radios, hungry for details. Others scrambled to Portal No. 4, where an odd sight emerged: Pigeons roosting on the structure that raised and lowered the elevator that miners used to make their way into and out of the mine were dropping dead, plummeting into the mine as smoke – and apparently toxic vapors that came with it – billowed from the earth.
The next day, the first of the bodies was brought out at Portal No. 4, with Veach, then working for another company, taking part in the grim task. A stretcher he helped lug into the mine with supplies for rescue teams eventually was returned to the surface with a body, one after the other, in a journey through up to a mile of dark, unforgiving subsurface terrain.
Yet locals got a Christmas miracle: Cecil Sanders, who survived 56 hours in the mine before being brought out alive.
The town’s junior high school’s gymnasium became a makeshift morgue, where the bodies lined out on the floor. Nearly two dozen funerals came on Christmas Eve, another 19 on Christmas.
Investigators blamed the explosion on a methane buildup in the 20-square-mile mine. The site had passed a safety inspection just weeks before, though union officials charged it had long been “gassy” and unsafe. By summer, Orient No. 2 was back in operation and wasn’t closed down until the 1960s.
That shutdown didn’t help West Frankfort, which in its heyday thrived on coal mining and had 20,000 residents in the 1920s – more than twice its population these days. But the region now is trying to stage a mining comeback as clean-coal technology makes Illinois’ high-sulfur, dirtier-burning black ore, shunned just decades ago, more favorable again.
At least for a time, the disaster prodded Summers to give up on mining. He went to work for a prison, only to return to his old job a few months later after fearing work behind bars was more dangerous. He retired after 37 years in the mines.
Memorials in the area name those who died in the 1951 disaster. Despite – and perhaps because of – Portal No. 4’s macabre role in history, there have been efforts led by the head of the county’s historical preservation society to make the 10-acre site a museum and memorial. But, despite pleas for state help, nothing has come of Bob Rea’s push and the site remains a graveyard of junked cars and other debris.
“We knew it was a longshot. But it’s something with a significant historical bent, part of our heritage and something certainly worth preserving,” Rea said.
Veach, now retired after 43 years in the mines, says the dead “should never be forgotten.” But he has no plans to take part in Wednesday’s memorial, saying it’d be too anguishing at a time his grandchildren are headed to his home for the holidays.
“I want to be up, I want to be beaming,” he said. “If I go to that memorial, I know where I’ll be. I’ll be at the bottom of the sand pit.”
Summers hopes the memorial serves as an awakening for today’s younger generation of miners.
“They need to know they may not come out.”
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