Night of the Big Bump!

On December 21, 1951 at 7:40PM, an explosion occurred at the Orient #2 coal mine in West Frankfort, IL. The explosion occurred at a depth of approximately 500 feet and about 2 1/2 miles from the shaft head—almost directly under our farm.

Dad worked at Orient #2. He operated a loader during the 1st (day) shift and had gotten home earlier in the afternoon. I was four years old but I still remember some of the events that night. Mom and Dad talked about the explosion for years. Dad lost a number of friends that night. Mom lost friends, husbands of friends and some cousins.

We were at supper. Mom had prepared something and had served it in a large crockery tureen—some kind of stew most likely. We were eating when the entire house jumped. The tureen flew off the table. Part of the chimney atop the house collapsed. Later, we discovered that the ground, just a few feet east of the house, had dropped several inches.

Dad went to our phone, just recently installed, and found our neighbors, Sy Malone, John Davis and Ken Shoemaker already on the line calling the UMWA local office. The union office confirmed the explosion and called all four in for mine rescue teams. Dad and John Davis had training and equipment on hand for mine recovery. Early versions of air-breathers. Ken Shoemaker was to go to the mine to help organize the rescue. Sy Malone was told to come to the union hall for further instructions.

When he got off the phone, Dad gathered his gear, waited for John to join him and both left for the mine. The wives, Ken Shoemaker, and I gathered blankets, coats, other clothing, food, several thermos of tea and coffee and we headed for the mine. I don’t remember too much of the night other than the near constant mine whistle, grown men and women crying, and a constant movement of people around a bonfire built to keep off the cold. I slept through most of it.

Dad and John Davis didn’t come home for several days. John had his arm in a cast. His arm had been broken when a rock fell from the tunnel roof. Dad spent a few hours in the hospital when he was overcome by smoke, rock dust and carbon monoxide. A couple of decades later, the rock dust attributed to his death, a form of silicosis called Black Lung.

The explosion was the largest to occur at that time. Of the 272 miners working below that shift, 119 were killed. The reverberations lead toFederal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952. Union and Federal engineers later said the explosion was caused by the ignition of methane gas in the mine. The gas, in turn, triggered a coal dust explosion that reached almost every corner of the 12 1/2 miles of tunnels.

UNITED MINE WORKERS JOURNAL Vol. LXIII, No., 1; January 1st, 1952

“119 Perish in West Frankfort Gas Explosion, Lewis at Scene Demands Congress Act”

Bulletin: After a two day underground investigation in the Orient No. 2 mine federal authorities said in a preliminary report released by Interior Secretary Chapman December 28 that they believed the explosion was caused by the ignition of methane gas by an electrical source. Investigators said it was “obvious” that large accumulations of coal dust were present in the affected area and that sufficient rock dust had not been applied. The original ignition of gas in turn raised and ignited clouds of coal dust, propagating sections of the mine. They further disclosed the fact that a large amount of electrical equipment capable of igniting gas was in operation in air returning from the vicinity of “abandoned worked-out areas known to contain explosive gas.”

Orient #2 closed several years later. Dad never worked below again. He transferred to a new job “on top” loading railroad coal cars. Ken Shoemaker quit the mines and never returned. John Davis and Sy Malone returned to their former jobs and continued working them until the mine closed. The picture at the top of this post is the Memorial for those who died. It is located on West Main Street in Benton, IL. My hometown.