Candy Moulton: Reading the West 5-23-11 |

Candy Moulton: Reading the West 5-23-11

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

On a Saturday morning in February 1943, 77 men picked up their tools and descended into the Smith coal mine in Bearcreek, Mont. They were producing coal at an accelerated rate in order to supply a nation at war. It was their responsibility as “warriors” on the homefront to make sure there would be plenty of supply to meet the demands of the industry. They worked extra shifts to meet demand. Only three of those men would come out alive.

It was a day that some had anticipated would come. They knew there was danger in coal mining, and they knew that there were increasing risks at the Smith mine. A mining inspector had been on site months earlier and recommended changes. The mine owners needed to improve ventilation, they needed to supply all of the men with closed lamps (rather than allowing open flames) on their headgear. They needed to reduce the danger from accumulated coal dust which is highly combustible.

Miners had reported to the town doctor suffering from headaches, nausea and other indicators that the air they breathed underground was filled with carbon dioxide and methane gas. The doctor had even done blood testing to prove that. He went into the mine himself. Taking blood samples from his own arm before and after spending time underground, giving him clear evidence of the impacts to the body from the poor air quality in the mine.

Some of the men had told family members, and friends, they knew the mine was not safe. But they went to work that Saturday morning because they had jobs to do. They needed to provide for their families; they needed to provide for the nation. It was their duty.

They were not underground for very long that warm winter Saturday when it all busted loose. What caused the explosion never became clear; later inspectors had differing opinions. But some of the men closest to the Smith mine’s ground zero were instantly killed, blown across the mine, down the tunnel, dying from impact and fire. Others were tumbled not quite so violently, but nevertheless far from where they had been working.

The explosion caused immediate fires in the accumulated coal dust and it led to immediate degradation in air quality as lethal gas built up in the mine the burning of methane gas created carbon monoxide, a silent killer the men trapped below knew was coming their way.

Alec Hawthorne was a hoist operator whose job it was to transfer coal from the third seam to the second seam. When he lost power after the explosion, and was bombarded by highly pressurized air, he “ran to the closest telephone and dialed the office at the surface of the mine.” No doubt he was yelling when he said, “There’s something seriously wrong down here. I’m getting the hell out.”

Hawthorne began running, but was knocked down. Unconscious.

But Hawthorne was one of the lucky three. Rescuers found him, dragged him to the surface, revived him, as they did Eli Houtonen and Willard Reid. But they didn’t find Hawthorne’s son James in time to save him. Nor did they reach any of the other men who were still alive after the initial explosion and fire. Some of the miners barricaded a room, hoping their “good” air would hold until the rescuers arrived.

The air held at least long enough for them to scratch crude notes to their family. “Goodbye wifes and daughters,” said one message scrawled in chalk on a small board torn from an explosive box, “We died an easy death.”

Another signed by four men said, “We try to do our best but we couldn’t get out.”

Emil Anderson wrote his private message: “It’s 5 min, Pass 11 o’clock. dear Agnes and children. I’m sorry we had to go this God Bless you all. Emil with lots Kiss.”

It was heartwrenching for the families of the 74 miners (and one rescuer who also died in an attempt to save them), made poignant by the presence of those final words from their loved ones.

Susan Kushner Resnick has created a masterful account of the Smith Mine explosion, using a novelist’s technique in storytelling and a journalist’s knack for digging out the details. This true story will tear at your heart strings, and make you angry over the mistakes that were made, the corners that were cut at the expense of men’s lives.

I have three specific criticisms:

1.) Resnick calls it the worst coal mine disaster in America. Not so. An explosion in the Union Pacific coal mine in Hanna, Wyo., in 1903 killed 169 (and another 59 died in another of the UP mines at Hanna in 1908 with over 200 of those bodies never recovered).

2.) There is a photograph related to baby Connie Summerville that gives away a side-story.

3.) There is no index.

Those picky details aside, this is a book I can highly recommend.

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