Before there were Quecreek and Sago, there was ...

In 2002, the nation watched the Quecreek coal mine in Pennsylvania, where nine miners were dramatically rescued after being trapped for three days by a mine flood.This January, the nation watched again, this time the Sago coal mine in West Virginia. Only one of 13 men was rescued after an explosion filled the mine with poison gas.But people seem to have forgotten the West Virginia mine disaster the nation saw unfold on TV 40 years before.Before there were Quecreek and Sago, there was Hominy Falls.Imagine being trapped inside a three-foot-high tunnel, thousands of feet inside the pitch-dark earth. Imagine the tunnel starts to flood. Water is rushing in violently, like somebody lifted the gates on a dam. The only reason you aren’t drowning is because your tiny section happens to be about 1 foot higher than the rest of the tunnel.You try to escape, crawling through the tunnel, but the water gets deeper and deeper, until it fills the tunnel to the very top. To escape, you would have to swim through a subterranean hole for hundreds of yards — without getting lost in the many labyrinthine passages along the way. The idea is horrifying. It would be impossible, anyway. So you turn back, to your tiny section of tunnel above the water. And you wait. One day passes, then two, and nobody comes to save you. You can barely move in the cramped tunnel. You have no food. Nine days pass, and nobody comes.That is what happened to six men in May 1968, in a coal mine in the mountains of Nicholas County, W.Va. One of the men, John Moore Jr., kept a diary during their 10-day ordeal. It has never been published, until now.The first dayIn the freezing predawn, John Moore Jr. said goodbye to his wife and daughter, climbed into his old Chevy and began his daily hour-long trek over the wooded Pocahontas County mountains. It was Monday — the beginning of another week in the mine.Moore was day-shift foreman at the Saxsewell coal mine, near the remote community of Hominy Falls. It was low coal. For eight hours a day, the men crawled through tunnels only 3 feet high, thousands of feet beneath the Earth. But that was nothing new — at age 46, Moore had never worked in a mine where he could stand up.By the time Moore got to work, fellow miner Charles Beam, the foreman on the previous shift, had already checked the mine. It was always damp, but one section seemed particularly so: a new section, doglegging off to the left beyond the farthest reaches of the mine.Sure enough, Beam noticed, the floor was all wet. But that was normal, especially after the section had been idle all weekend.The sun had just risen when Moore and the other 24 men on day shift rode the motorized “man-trip” into the mountain. Fifteen of them stayed in the main entries and started mining coal.Moore headed thousands of feet away with the others, to the wettest part of the mine, and re-inspected it. By this time, a small stream was flowing out of one of the section’s three rooms — the No. 3 room. But that wasn’t unusual. So half of the men started mining the day’s coal in No. 3 room.The others were in No. 1 room, repairing their own mining machine. Moore joined them. So he wasn’t in No. 3 room when, at 9:40 a.m., that mining machine made its third sweep of the day across the face, gobbling coal like corn kernels off a cob, until only a thin sheet of coal separated 25 men from the source of all that water ...
But Gene Martin, a timberman on No. 3 crew, was.“‘Boys, we hit water!’”It was fellow timberman William Burdette’s voice. But when Martin turned toward the coal face, toward the voice, a wall of water slammed into him.It swallowed the men, the heavy steel conveyor pans and chains, and the massive mining machine. It tossed them together, water churning like a tidal wave. By the time Martin surfaced, he had been washed completely out of No. 3 room, and hands were pulling him from the water.It was Moore, and the men from No. 1 room — miner operator Jennings Lilly, miner helper Richard Scarbro, beltman Larry Lynch and electrician Joe Fitzwater. They had rushed out of No. 1 room when they heard the shouts and the water, and they made it to the entrance of the empty No. 2 room when they found Martin.His hand was ripped open and bleeding — something sharp had slashed it in the water — but he was alive. The six men raced toward the conveyor belt that normally carried coal to the surface. But the water had filled every exit, and was still rising. They hastened back to the driest place they knew: No. 2 room.
But not before they grabbed three lunch buckets they found, and three jackets and some brattice cloth — heavy canvas used to build temporary partitions in the mine.It seemed they’d be staying for a while.Moore had with him a small, black, looseleaf notebook. He usually used it to keep track of supplies in the mine. Now, in matter-of-fact words, he documented what was happening:Sax #8 Gauley Coal & Coke Monday May 6 1968. #3 miner cut through to old mine which was full of water. We tried to get out to the belt but couldn’t make it. The only chance we had was to go back to the two rooms. We prayed. L. Lynch fell on his knees and prayed and the water stop[ped] rising.We put up brattice and set timbers and made us a place to stay in. Scarbro and I got 3 dinner buckets and 3 coats. But one bucket was full of water and we couldn’t eat anything in it. We had two buckets which had about 4 sandwiches in them, 3 candy bars, 1/2 gal. of water and 1 pt. milk.For an hour and a half, the other 15 men in the mine had no idea anything had happened. The water hadn’t reached their section, which was uphill from the rest. So they kept mining as usual, not knowing their escape route had already been cut off.Around 11 a.m., supplyman Ernest Fitzwater — trapped miner Joe Fitzwater’s brother — rode into the mine with a load of supplies. He made it less than a quarter-mile before he met water, a lot of it, flowing out of the mine.He took one look at the water, jumped off the inbound tractor and onto the outbound conveyor belt, riding to the surface. As soon as he got outside he telephoned mine superintendent Frank Davis, who was inside the mine. Davis had been with the 15 miners in the main entries. But the coal conveyor belt had suddenly turned sopping wet, and Davis had crawled down the passage to see where the water was coming from. He had reached the turn-off toward Moore’s section when he met the rushing river — and simultaneously heard himself paged. He answered the phone.“Frank, we’ve got water problems,” Ernest Fitzwater said.“Ernest,” Davis replied, “I’m looking right at it.”He told Fitzwater to call the coal company’s general manager — pumps were going to be needed. Then he told 13 of the miners to stay put until they heard from him. Then he and beltman Edward Rudd crawled away toward the water’s source. They knew Moore’s group was in trouble.They crawled for a long time, as far as they could, but they still couldn’t get anywhere near Moore’s section. The pitiless water filled the passage to the ceiling, crashing toward them like whitewater.Finally, sadly, Davis turned to Rudd. “They didn’t have a chance,” he said.He and Rudd turned to rejoin the other 13. But they were trapped.So were the other 13.For those 15 men, the telephones to the outside were still working. Within hours, they knew that seven huge pumps were at work, sucking some of the millions of gallons of water out of the mine. All adjacent mines had stopped working. Crews at one, owned by the Imperial Smokeless Coal Co., were trying to rescue the 13 by drilling through their own mine.Everyone assumed Moore’s group was dead.The second dayThey should have been dead. By a one-in-a-million chance, they had decided to shelter in a small air bubble that had formed when the water filled their section, a company engineer later stated. Federal investigators, though, concluded that the elevation in that room was simply one foot higher than the water ever reached.But Moore and the other five didn’t know that. They didn’t know what had happened to the other four men in No. 3 room. They didn’t know anything but the darkness and silence of their underground tomb.5-7-68 Tuesday. Water went down about 8 inches. We were all still wet from Monday and pretty cold. We keep checking on water and prayed and tried to sleep.John Moore Jr.’s daughter, Vicki Rose, remembers her dad as “a pretty good fella.”He married his high school sweetheart, Gladys Thomas, and settled down next door to her mother in Buckeye, Pocahontas County. One of Rose’s most vivid memories is the time her mother, who didn’t drive much, accidentally crashed her dad’s car while he was at work.“He loved that car,” Rose recalled recently. Her mother cried and cried. But when her dad got home he simply said, “‘Well, Gladys, are you hurt?’ ” She said no. “Well, the car can be fixed,” he said, as if surprised anyone would be upset about such a minor thing.So it was Gladys, and Vicki, and Gene Martin’s wife Elizabeth, and Frank Davis’s wife Helen, and dozens of other wives and children who gathered at the mine. Nobody official ever called them, Liz Martin and Helen Davis remember — Helen heard about the disaster on the radio.A funeral home had brought a tent, and that’s where they waited. Another funeral tent sat empty nearby, ready to serve as a makeshift morgue.Newspapers were filled with pictures of beaming wives, talking and joking with their husbands on their telephones — their husbands among the 15. “I told him that I was tired of all the overtime,” one wife was quoted as saying. “Don’t you get into any meanness down there,” another teased.Some newspapers didn’t even refer to 25 missing men anymore — only 15. One simply called the others “the lost 10.”But rescuers hadn’t given up on them. They had figured out what Moore had already concluded: The men had accidentally drilled into an abandoned, water-filled mine that was nowhere to be found on the Saxsewell mine map.Newspapers called it the McKenzie mine. Eugene and Thomas McKenzie of East Rainelle had operated it until 1963. Other contractors mined it until it was abandoned in 1966.Rescuers tried to reach the missing 10 men through that mine. But every tunnel was filled to the top with water. Pumps were installed in the McKenzie mine, in hopes of reaching the lost 10.The third day5-8-68 Wed. Water went down about 1 1/2 inches on day shift & 2nd shift about all we did was check water and prayed that some one would get to us.For Moore’s group, time seemed to be running out — because the food was running out. They rationed it strictly: Larry Lynch, the most openly religious of the group, would say the blessing over one sandwich, and then it would be divided among the six men. Each would get a piece about the size of a quarter.The men had their cap lights, but they knew they had to conserve their power. When absolutely necessary, they would turn one on, but only for the shortest possible time. Darkness reigned.For the other 15 men, conditions were slightly better. “They have been cramped for more than three days in a cold, damp area where only a few could stand,” doctors cautioned in the newspapers. Food was adequate, though. Holes had been drilled from the surface to the men, and food was lowered through them.In fact, people were so optimistic about the 15 that a rumor circulated late at night that rescue was imminent. Ambulances gathered, and 500 people — plus more than two dozen reporters and crews from all three TV networks — crowded to watch the rescue. But it turned out to be a false alarm.The crowd dispersed, except for about 100 worried family members.“I don’t believe what they say anymore,” said the wife of one of the trapped 15. “On Monday they said it would be 24 hours. Yesterday they said it would be 24 hours. Now they say it will be another 24 hours.”“I don’t know what’s going on,” another woman commented. “And I don’t think those men down there know.”The rescue effort continued.“The work goes on doggedly, aggressively, hopefully while the big pumps lower the water level,” newspapers reported.“Surface teams said the trapped men have no sense of time. Everything is a long night.”The fourth day 5-9-68 Thur. Water still the same, not down any from yesterday ... We have been here 72 hrs. Scarbro and Gene Martin checked on water to see if is down or not. Water about 2 inches high[er than] it was.They started drilling a hole down through top at 11:55 a.m. Hole drilled through at 3:55 p.m. Drilled through about 85 feet from us but we sure was glad to know they were working to get us out. Water level still the same. Scarbro and Fitzwater and Martin was beating on pan line trying to get them to hear outside. We thought sure they would drill another hole through to us. So we eat and drink what we had left, which was 1 sandwich, 1 pt. of water.The food and clean water had run out. And Gene Martin’s hand had become badly infected. The flesh had started to stink. He took an old pocketknife and began to scrape away at his own hand, trying to carve down to undiseased flesh.Outside, something bizarre had happened.“On top of everything else, this movie company moved into the Hominy Falls mine accident site yesterday with its mini-skirted actress, Shirley Knight,” one newspaper reported.“According to its director, who didn’t identify himself, the unit is ‘traveling around trying to make a movie’ ... When asked about the male lead, the director said ‘you wouldn’t know him anyway.’“The director had hoped the crew could get in without being noticed ... ‘Now everyone will ham it up,’ the plumpish director said. ‘We wanted natural action.’“Just why the filmmakers chose the site of the trapped miners had no explanation. It wasn’t a good day for shooting movies ...”Meanwhile, another rescue deadline for the 15 — 6 p.m. Thursday — had come and gone. Rescuers said it would be 6 p.m. Friday, for sure.As for the lost 10, rescuers believed that the hole they drilled had gone directly into the chamber where the men were. That chamber, the hole showed, was filled with water.The men had heard rescuers calling to them through the hole. But nobody had heard them shouting back.“We believe that whole area is flooded,” said rescue supervisor H.E. Sundstrom. “We are not drilling any more holes there.”The fifth day5-10-68 Friday. Water raised about 6 inches. It doesn’t seem like they are trying very hard to get us out. We wonder why they didn’t drill another hole through the top to drop us something to eat and drink. Time now is 3:00 p.m. Friday. We all tried to sleep Friday night. We were all about dried out by now.Newspaper headlines read, “Removal of 15 miners again halted by water.”Continuous pumping had lowered the water level for the 15 somewhat; Davis and Rudd were able to rejoin the other 13. But the mine entrance was still blocked by a “swag” — a floor-to-ceiling trough of water 200 feet long. Scuba divers had been called in long ago, but their equipment proved too bulky to use in the narrow mine passage.Newspapers described the layout of the mine in which the men waited.“The mine passage is shaped roughly like a lower-case ‘h’ with the entrance at the foot of the left leg,” one article explained. “The 15 were just above the point on that leg where the passage turns right — at a level higher than the water ...The 10 who are believed dead were at the foot of the right leg.”It seemed just a matter of hours before the 15 would be rescued.“The prospect of freedom at last was made even sweeter for the miners by a realization that they have earned time-and-a-half overtime for all the hours over 40 they have spent in the mine this week,” one newspaper enthused.In today’s dollars, those paychecks — compensation for five days trapped in a mine — would amount to about $2,900.The sixth day“Fifteen stiff and chilled coal miners rode a conveyor belt to freedom before dawn today after spending five terrifying days huddled in a flooded mine,” read the newspaper account of Saturday, May 11, 1968.“Left behind, deep in the mountain, were 10 of their fellows for whom all hope was lost long ago.”There was “a great wave of laughing, cheering and hugging ... Photographers’ bulbs went off like fireflies.“There also was sadness among relatives of the 10 missing men crowded about the entrance in faint hope.“The pumps which had finally cleared much of the passageway of water were stilled while the men came out. Then they groaned to life again.“‘We will continue to drain the mine until we make contact with the remaining 10 men,’ ” said C.E. Richardson, president of the company.Deep inside the mine, Moore’s group knew nothing of the 15. They only knew they hadn’t heard any rescue drilling for two days, and they had been missing for long enough for people to give up hope, and now the pumps — which they assumed would be part of any rescue attempt — seemed to have been abandoned.The water had begun to rise again, frighteningly.5-11-68 Sat. At 1:40 a.m. everyone was awake and Scarbro and Lilly checked water about the same. John Moore checked water at 3:00 a.m. Sat. It had raised about 3 inches.We would lay down for a while and then sit up for a while every day and night. Sat. at 1:00 p.m. Joe checked water and it had raised about 8 inches more. We all prayed for it didn’t look like they were pumping on it.Sat at 5:00 p.m. I checked water. It had went down about 1 inch.
The seventh day5-12-68 Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. Checked water. It had went down about 1 inch in about 12 hrs. It looks like they could do better.1:00 p.m. J. Lilly and Scarbro checked water. It had went down about 1 inch. It is going down about 1 inch an hr. now. They are doing good.I went to check on water at 4:30 p.m. It was down about 7 inches. We all prayed. At 7:30 p.m. Scarbro went to check on water. It was down 3 inches more.Moore’s group didn’t know it, but another adjacent mine company, S&C Coal, had drilled holes through its own mine into the abandoned McKenzie mine and had been pumping out water to try to help the lost 10. Those holes had finally run dry. S&C decided to shoot the coal and make a big opening, hoping to reach the men.An hour away in Clintonville, Greenbrier County, Gene Martin’s wife Liz had been at home all week, hardly sleeping or eating, just waiting and praying. The newspapers had grown quiet after the rescue of the 15. Everyone seemed convinced her husband was dead; she had heard rumors that the mine would be sealed shut. She heard, too, that men at nearby mines had vowed they wouldn’t work until the 10 were found, dead or alive.But she couldn’t keep vigil at the mine. She had to try to hold life together for her three young boys.On Sunday, her littlest son, Terry, handed her a homemade card.“I love you,” it read. “Happy Mother’s Day.”The eighth DayOn the eighth day, Moore’s usually neat script became difficult to read, filled with blots and scrawls.It had been eight long days since the men had had more than one bite of sandwich in their stomachs. And for four days, nothing.5-13-68 Monday. Water dropping all the time. We all thought we could make it outside. So we tried but when we got to the swag we couldn’t get across it. Water was still up to roof. Joe Fitzwater passed out and couldn’t make it back. We put him on a shovel and pulled him back. I guess we were in a little black damp. But I couldn’t get my safety light to light. I got water in it.Monday about 3:30 p.m. Went to see if could find the telephone. Gene Martin went with me to get water. I couldn’t find the telephone. It had washed away.I found the first aid box and started back with it. When I cross the belt I found one of the men from #3 miner laying beside belt ... I had to cry. I didn’t have the nerve to look to see which one it was.Gene and I made it back to the others. I soon got hold of myself and dressed Gene Martin’s hand.The water was dropping because pumps had finally been installed in Moore’s section of the mine. It hadn’t been possible until the mine entrance was cleared, the day of the rescue.S&C Coal finished its big opening into the McKenzie mine, and out rolled a large body of “black damp” — deadly, oxygen-deficient air. Exhaust fans were installed, and rescuers tried to get through to the lost 10. But roof falls blocked every passageway.Davis, one day out of the hospital, arrived at the mine in his work clothes, determined to help find the lost 10. The company manager, T.A. Salvati, who had been working nonstop on the rescue, wouldn’t let him.Moore and the other men were drinking the fetid mine water now.The ninth day5-14-68 Tuesday morning. Everything seems pretty quiet. I guess we will just sit here and wait to see if anyone comes to get us. It seems like a long time we have been here. I think I have eat[en] about all the skin off of my lips. We have all been praying. Lynch sure has been a big help to all of us. He has prayed about all the time.Moore’s handwriting had become deeply slanted, with big spaces between the words, as if each word took a long time to write.Davis again arrived at the mine and started putting on his coveralls.“I’m going in,” he informed Salvati.Salvati looked at him for a moment. “Well, then I’m going with you,” he said.But the water was still impenetrable.The tenth day5-15-68 Wed. morning at 1:30 a.m. Everything quiet. I dressed Gene Martin’s hand. He has a pretty bad hand.Wed. 7:30 a.m. Gene Martin and Scarbro went after water. Scarbro passed out. We had quite a time getting him back to what I called the tent. I think he drink too much water.8:30 a.m. Everyone settled down. But Scarbro still a pretty sick man.2:30 p.m. We set up a while and talked. Water still going down. I feel pretty good now. I am pretty sure we will get out alive. Thank God.8 p.m. All of us are going to try & go to Sleep awhileThe eleventh day5-16-68 Thursday morning at 12:30 a.m. Everything OK. Scarbro is better now. We are having a drink of water. Lynch thank God for our water.As Moore was writing, a weary rescue team was sloshing through the murky mine passage, same as they had been doing for days. But this time, their lamps illuminated something startling in the mud on the other side of the receding water.Fresh footprints.At about 1:10 a.m. we heard men talking. They are coming after us. We hollered at them. Roy Simmons was the first to put his head through to us. I think we all hug him. We sure thank God for saving us.EpilogueMartin was the only survivor of the crew that drilled into the McKenzie mine. Killed were timberman William Burdette, 43, of Rainelle; miner helper Claude Roy Dodd, 42, of Rainelle; timberman Renick McClung, 46, of Orient Hill; and miner operator Eli Walkup, 37, of McRoss.The federal government doesn’t consider it a “disaster” unless at least five people are killed, so Hominy Falls is left off most official lists. It has slowly faded from the nation’s memory.But the Martins still have a brown paper bag full of letters they received from well-wishers around the country, who had watched it all on TV. And the movie crew that barged in? The “plumpish” director turned out to be Francis Ford Coppola, the unknown star James Caan.Federal investigators concluded that both mines’ maps were wrong. At the abandoned mine, coal had been mined past what was shown on the official map. And the Saxsewell engineers had made an error in trajectory when Moore’s section was started a couple of months before. It was inevitable that the two mines would collide.At the time, there was nothing the government could do to punish the offense.“That’s the unfortunate thing about our law; there is no penalty attached,” state Department of Mines Director Elmer C. Workman said at the time. “All we can do is say ‘please don’t do it anymore.’ ”A company engineer later said that if the map had been correct, the rescuers would have drilled into Moore’s group’s air bubble and burst it, immediately drowning the men.Hominy Falls prompted the nation’s first laws requiring accurate mine maps. Still, inaccurate maps led to two recent catastrophes: the 2000 Martin County Coal impoundment collapse that dumped 250 million gallons of coal slurry in eastern Kentucky, and the 2002 Quecreek mine flood.Widows of three of the killed Hominy Falls miners filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the coal company, seeking $334,500. A jury in Greenbrier County ruled against them, but they were granted a new trial. The lawsuit was settled in 1977.The remaining survivors have a reunion every first Saturday in June at J&S Restaurant in Rainelle, Martin and Davis said.Davis retired from coal mining in 1987, 45 years after he started. He’s 81 years old now. In a recent interview, he spoke about the disaster — about how he and Rudd hugged the dead belt motor until it ran out of heat; about how the men cried when their rescuers reached them.Tears still fill his eyes, sometimes.“Nobody was as surprised as I was when those six men walked out,” he said.None of the men got any big money. “We were supposed to have gotten time and a half,” Martin remembered in a recent interview. “It didn’t amount to a whole lot.” As he spoke, he looked absently at his hand. It is still deeply scarred.Martin was off from work for about eight weeks. He found he couldn’t sleep at night — he just lay awake in the dark. He looked for a different job, “but everybody was full or didn’t need anybody,” he said. He went back to the same mine, working until it shut down two years later. Martin retired from coal mining in 1988.Jennings Lilly coal mined for 17 more years.“I never was as strong a man after that [disaster],” Lilly said. “I had a couple back operations, and I got black lung pretty bad. But I’m in better shape than a lot of people.”Moore developed arthritis in his spine from the cold and damp, said his daughter, Vicki Rose. He tried to go back to work; he was only one year from retirement. But he could no longer bend over in the low coal.“It upset him,” said Rose, now 58, of Hillsboro. “He didn’t know what he was going to do.”Island Creek Coal, which had taken over the mine, paid him half his salary for a year, she said. After a three-year legal fight, he was awarded disability.He locked up the diary in an old trunk. That’s where Rose found it, after her dad died in 1990.“Readers Digest contacted Dad after the accident and wanted to do a story, but they never followed through,” she said. Then for nearly 40 years, nothing. Not until after the nationally televised Sago coal mine disaster in January — which had Rose in tears.“The media kept saying, ‘They’ve already been in there 24 hours,’ ” as if that meant the 13 trapped Sago miners had no chance, she said. “I was thinking, “No, they could still be alive. My dad stayed alive for 10 days, so don’t give up.” One miner, Randal McCloy, did survive.But, as Jennings Lilly said: “People have pretty much forgotten about Hominy Falls.”Some of the miners, like Lynch, were devout Christians before the disaster ever happened. But some of them said those days in the mine made them believe. There were stories of prayer stopping the rising flood, of prayer making the filthy water clean enough to drink.“I went in a sinner and came out a Christian,” Gene Martin told a newspaper reporter, tears rolling down his cheeks, on the first day he saw daylight. And the papers came up with a name for the story.They called it “The Miracle of Hominy Falls.”The diary of John Moore was provided by his daughter, Vicki Rose. Also contributing to this article were newspaper reports of the time, the official report of the U.S. Bureau of Mines on the Hominy Falls disaster, and interviews with surviving miners and their families.To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.Newspapers ran this list after the rescue.The 15 rescued firstGlen Amick, LeivasyLonnie Bennett, FenwickHarry Bess, RichwoodIsaac Casto, NettieEldon Collins, FenwickAddison Copen, RupertFranklin Davis RichwoodOscar Dillon, NettieOsmond Dillon,his brother, Hominy FallsRoy McClure, RichwoodElwood O’Dell, CrichtonEdward Rudd, LeivasyHershel Seabolt, CraigsvilleAndy Walton, Hominy FallsOttie Walton, his brother, QuinwoodThe six rescued lastJoe Fitzwater, RupertJennings Lilly, Mt. NeboLarry Lynch, RichwoodJohn Moore Jr., BuckeyeGene Martin, ClintonvilleEdward Scarbro, RichwoodThe four who diedWilliam Burdette, RainelleClaude Roy Dodd, RainelleRenick McClung, Orient HillEli Walkup, McRoss
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