The Tragedy of the Mine

IN the days that followed the explosion there came to all the men the unconscious realization that the next attempt to open the mine would in all probability be the last. If the attempt should prove successful, a few months’ time might see the mine again in working order; but should another disaster occur, the mine— now partially ruined — would probably be wrecked beyond any immediate recovery.

As there had been no trace of smoke following the explosion, and as the mine had been so promptly sealed, it was reasonable to suppose that little, if any, fire existed in the workings; and the only question was, how much of the work of restoration that had been effected was destroyed by the explosion of the gas?

Ten days later, the helmet-men again were lowered into the mine, and, after remaining underground for an hour and a half, came out and reported that the force of the explosion had expended itself principally up the air-shaft, and that although the numerous stoppings that we had erected had been for the most part destroyed, there were no serious ‘falls’ that they could discover, or any special damage to the entries which they had explored. Immediately the work of restoration began afresh, and all day and night the helmet-men in regular shifts entered the gas-filled mine, and put back in place the stoppings around the mine-bottom, in order to create once more an air-zone for the workers. The work was dangerous. Again we lost a man, an enormous Negro, who had in some way loosened his helmet and fallen unconscious, too far from the foot of the hoisting-shaft for his comrades to drag him to the hoist; before the rescue party, consisting of three more helmet-men, had reached him, he was dead. And during these more recent days, another miner had met his death in the blackness of the entry. The pressure of the pneumatic washer beneath the helmet had stopped the circulation around the top of his head, and in endeavoring to loosen his helmet and relieve the pain, he had let in a breath of the gas. We got him to the surface with his heart still faintly beating, but death soon followed.

The men used to get into their helmets in a little room that we had fitted up for the purpose in the warehouse, one hundred feet from the top of the hoisting-shaft; and as we saw the doors close behind the men as they entered the hoist, every man of us would instinctively look at his watch and mark the time of the entrance of the shift. An hour later, some one was sure to remark, ‘They’ve been gone an hour— just’; and then, a little later, ‘They’re down an hour and ten minutes.’ It was then reasonable to expect their signal to the hoisting engineer at any minute. An hour and twenty minutes, or often thirty, would sometimes pass before the little bell in the engine-house rang its ‘ hoist away.’ If it were an hour and a half, some one would say, ’They ought to be out by now’; and Billy Tilden, who had charge of the helmets, would silently begin getting ready a second set. It was a terrible feeling that would come over us as we watched the minutes slip past the time when the men should appear; and it was a thought that had come to us all, that Charley one day voiced: ‘Times like this, I’d rather be down with ’em than safe on top and all scareful.’

‘They are coming out!’ some one would yell from the door of the hoisting engineer’s house; and then the strain would become intense. An hour and a half or an hour and three quarters down was a long trip, and if it were the latter, the question would arise silently in every one’s thoughts: ‘How many will appear?’

Four always went down on a shift, and twice I remember when the door of the gas-lock above the hoisting-shaft burst open, and but three helmeted men staggered out into the sunlight. As the first man’s helmet was loosened, a dozen questions were fired at him. Whom had they left? Where was he? And while they were talking, the second shift was already on the hoist to the rescue.

After three weeks it seemed that success would reward us. An air-zone was created between the two shafts, and helmets were practically discarded except for exploration into the more distant workings of the mine. From the north end of B entry the air-current had been directed into the West North portion of the mine, and that entire section had been cleared of the gas. There had been no fire here, nor had the effects of the explosion been felt, and it was like walking the streets of a silent and long-deserted city to explore these entries so hastily abandoned on the night of the fire four months before. Day and night, like the skirmish line of an army, the men in charge moved slowly from place to place at the edge of the air-zone, each day penetrating farther and farther from the foot of the man-hoist as the air-currents drove back the gas, and forced it up and out through the shaft; and with these men ever on ceaseless guard, gangs of miners attacked the great falls in B entry, and carried on the slow work of removing the piles of fallen stone, and retimbering and strengthening the weakened roof.

I went on at three o’clock, on a shift that lasted until eleven in the evening, and for those eight hours my chief work consisted in testing and marking the line where the life-supporting air ceased, and the invisible, tasteless, odorless gas began. Holding our safety-lamps in the right hand, level with the eyes when we suspected the presence of gas, we would watch the flame. The safetylamp— a heavy, metal, lantern-shaped object, with a circular globe of heavy plate glass— is the only light other than electricity that can be safely carried into a gaseous mine. The lamps were lit before they were brought into the mine, and in addition were securely locked, that no accident or ignorant intention might expose the open flame to the gases of the mine. Over the small, sooty, yellow flame which gives a light less bright than that of an ordinary candle, are two wire-gauze cones fitting snugly inside the heavy globe; and it is through these cones that the flame draws the air which supports it. The presence of black-damp, or carbon dioxide, can easily be detected, if not by its odor, by the action of the flame, which grows dim, and, if the blackdamp exists in any quantity, is finally extinguished.

White-damp, the highly explosive gas which is most feared, has, on the other hand, a totally different effect. In the presence of this gas the flame of the safety-lamp becomes pointed, and as the gas grows stronger, the flame seems to separate from the wick, and an almost invisible blue cone forms beneath it. If the miner continues to advance into the white-damp, he will pass through a line where there are nine parts of air to one part gas (the explosive mixture), and the lamp will instantly register this explosive condition by a sudden crackling inside of the gauze and the extinguishing of the flame. Were it an open lamp, the explosion ignited by the flame would sweep throughout the entire workings, carrying death and destruction before it; but by the construction of the safetylamp, the explosion confines itself to the limited area within the gauze cones, and unless the lamp is moved suddenly and the flame is dragged through the gauze at the instant that the explosion occurs within the globe, it will not extend beyond the gauze. So dim was the light given from these lamps that we usually carried a portable electric lamp for light, using our safety-lamps principally for detecting the presence of gas.

As the days went by, the men became more hopeful, and it seemed that we were winning in our fight against the invisible. Already an entire quarter of the mine had been recovered from the gas, — a section where men might work without the use of helmets, restoring the burned and blown-down timbering, doors, and brattices.

Rob Carr, assistant mine-manager, was a tall young Scotsman who had been but a year or two in America. He had been brought up from early boyhood in the coal-mines, and had won the confidence of all who knew him, on account of his knowledge of the difficulties which beset the miner, and his ability in overcoming them. He was a tall man, — about six feet two in height, — with slightly stooping shoulders, caused perhaps by the attitude which days and nights of work under the low roofs of the mine-tunnels made necessary. I never heard him swear, and the men who knew him maintained that he never drank or smoked; and yet, in that rude community, where virtues were often more criticised than faults, there was no man more respected— and, perhaps, loved — than he.

He joined me every afternoon in the scale-house at about five, and for four hours we followed the long west entries out to their headings, testing for gas, and confirming the safety of the men who worked at bottom and trusted their lives in our hands. Each day he joined me, and for the last hours of my shift we remained together, examining and marking everywhere the progress of the air, and the ever-widening boundaries of the air-zone. At eleven our shift left the mine, and the night shift, under Carr, went down; and it was in order that he might be fully informed as to the conditions underground before he entered the mine with his men that he spent these additional hours in the evening with the men of the shift which preceded him.

One day we had walked from the scale-house down Second West North to the brattice-door which separates that entry from two other entries which cross it at right angles a halfmile from the mine-bottom. It was our purpose to open this door slightly and start the clean air-current behind us, moving through it into the crossing entries, which were filled with gas. A temporary brattice had to be erected in the nearer of the cross-entries, and for an hour we sat on the track while the air hummed through the half-open door, until the gas had been sufficiently blown back to permit us to pass through and put up the stopping.

As we sat on the track, talking in the low voice that men always use in dark and quiet places, we remarked how like the sound of surf on a hard beach and a wind from the sea was the sound of the air-current as it murmured through the cracks in the brattice-door. For the first time, Carr told me of his wife and the two small children whom he had left in Scotland, to whom he would some day return. ‘ And I ’m going to quit mining then,’ he told me. ‘ I ’m going to build a cottage down somewhere along a cove that I know of; where you can hear the surf on the beach, and where you can keep a sailboat.’ He had made good, he felt. There was money in the bank that, with the additions of a year or two more, would give him all that he desired, and then he was going home. And so we talked and, later, tested and found that the air was clear at last in a little area beyond the door. We erected the stopping, and, waiting a few minutes more to measure with our lamps the speed of the retreating gas, we turned and walked down the track. It was about ten o’clock. In an hour more I would be out, the long, hard day would be over; and then Carr with his night shift would return into the mine, and take up the work where we had left it.

There were lights and voices in B entry at the mine-bottom, and now and then a bit of laughter; and there was a cheerful noise of sledges and the rumble of the wheels of the flat cars as the men pushed them, laden with the broken stone from the falls, down the track to the hoisting-shaft. A little before eleven, the orders were given and the men laid down their tools, and picked up their safety-lamps, to leave. Two decks on the great hoisting-cage carried us all, and a minute later we stepped out into the fresh, cold air of the winter night.

From the yellow windows and open door of the warehouse came the sounds of voices and the laughter of the night shift who were getting ready to go down. We tramped in through the open door, blackened and wet, and for a few minutes rested our tired bodies, and warmed ourselves in the pungent heat of the little room, telling the others what we had accomplished. As I left the warehouse, I stopped for a minute on the doorstep and took a match from Johnny Ferguson, another Scotsman, a strong, silent man, with friendly eyes; then turned and walked home in the darkness of the cloudy night.

It was about half an hour later when I reached my room, for I had stopped on the way to chat with the gate-man. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, loosening the heel of one of my rubber boots with the toe of the other, when suddenly, through the stillness of the sleeping town, from the power-house half a mile away came a low and rising note, the great siren whistle in the power-house. Almost fascinated, I listened as the great note rose higher and more shrill and died away again. One blast meant a fire in the town; two blasts, fire in the buildings at the mine; and three blasts, the most terrible of all, a disaster or trouble in the mine. Once more, after an interminable pause, the sound came again; and once more rose and died away. I did not move, but there was a sudden coldness that came over me as once more, for the third time, the deep note broke out on the quiet air. Almost instantaneously the loud jingle of my telephone brought me to my feet. I took down the receiver: ‘The mine’s blown up,’ said a woman’s voice.

It was half a mile between my room and the gate to the mine-yards, and as my feet beat noisily on the long, straight road, doors opened, yellow against the blackness of the night, and voices called out — women’s voices mostly.

The gate-man knew little. ‘She’s let go,’ was all that he could say.

There were two men at the fan-house, the fan-engineer and his assistant, and in a second I learned from them that there had come a sudden puff up the air-shaft that had spun the fan backward a dozen revolutions on the belt before it picked up again. The explosion doors, built for such an emergency on the new dome above the air-shaft, had banged open noisily and shut again of their own weight. That was all.

There were half a dozen men at the top of the hoisting-shaft. The hoisting engineer sat, white-faced, on his seat by the shaft-mouth, one arm laid limply on the window-sill, his hand clenched on the lever. ‘I tried to telephone ’em,’ he said, ‘but they did n’t answer. The cage was down. She came out with a puff like you blow out of your pipe; that’s all.’ He stopped and awkwardly wiped his face. ‘Then I left the hoist down five minutes and brought her up,’ he continued, ‘but there was no one in it. Then I sent it down again. It’s down there now.’

‘ How long has it been down ? ’ I asked.

‘Ten minutes,’ he hazarded.

I gave him the order to hoist; and the silence was suddenly broken by the grind of the drums as he pulled the lever back, and the cable began to wind slowly upward. A minute later the black top of the hoist pushed up from the hole, and the decks, one by one, appeared — all empty.

There was no one at the mine except the hoisting engineer and some of the night force who were on duty at the power-house and in the engine-room. In the long months of trouble our force had gradually diminished, and of those who had remained and who were equal to such an emergency, part were now in the mine, and the rest, worn out and exhausted by the long day’s work, were faraway in the town, asleep; or perhaps, if the whistle had aroused them, on their way to the mine. Instant action was necessary, for following an explosion comes the after-damp, and if any were living this poisonous gas would destroy them.

As I turned from the shaft-mouth, McPherson, the superintendent, a square-built, freckled Scotsman about fifty years of age, came running toward the warehouse. There were but two helmets ready, for so favorably had our work progressed that we had neglected to keep more than two charged with oxygen, and had allowed the rest to be taken apart for repairs. Familiar with the conditions existing in the mine, we realized that the explosion, however slight, must have blown down many of the stoppings which we had erected, and allowed the pent-up gas to rush back into the portion of the mine which we had recovered, and in which the night shift was now imprisoned. If the gas had been ignited by open fire, immediate action was necessary, for our own safety as well as for the chance of rescuing the men in the mine; for in the month preceding we had seen the mine ‘repeat’ at regular intervals with two explosions, and if the fire had been ignited from open flame we must enter it, effect the rescue of our comrades, and escape before we could be caught by a second explosion. On the other hand, the chances were equal that the explosion might have been set off by a defective gauze in a safety-lamp or some other cause, and that there would be no immediate explosion following the first one.

In the hurry of adjusting our helmets, no one noticed that the charge of oxygen in mine was short, and that an hour and forty minutes was my working limit; and all unconscious of this, I tightened the valve, and with the oxygen hissing in the check-valves, we left the bright light of the room, and felt our way down the steps into the darkness of the yard, where a great arc-light above the hoisting-shaft made objects visible in its lavender light. A crowd had already gathered; a dark, silent crowd that stood like a flock of frightened sheep around the mouth of the man-hoist. With a man on either side of us to direct us, we walked to the hoist, our electric hand-lanterns throwing long white beams of light before us. There was no sound; no shrieking of women, no struggling of frenzied mothers or sisters to fight their way into the mine; but there was a more awful silence, and as we passed a pile of ties, I heard a whimpering noise, like a puppy, and in the light of my lamp saw the doubled form of a woman who crouched alone on the ground, a shawl drawn over her head, sobbing.

We stepped on the hoist, and for an instant there came the picture of a solid line of people who hung on the edge of the light; of white faces; of the lavender glare of the arc-lamp, contrasting with the orange light from the little square window in the house of the hoisting engineer. ‘Are you ready?’ he called to us. ‘Let her go,’we said; and the picture was gone as the hoist sank into the blackness of the shaft. We said nothing as we were lowered, for we knew where the men would be if we could reach them, and there was nothing else to talk about. The grind of the shoes on the hoist as they scraped the rails made a sound that drowned out my feeble whistling of the Merry Widow waltz inside of my helmet.

We felt the motion of our descent slacken, and then came a sudden roaring splash as the lower deck of the hoist hit the water which filled the sump. Slowly we sank down until the water which flooded that part of the mine rose, cold and dead, to our knees, and the hoist came to a stop. Splashing clumsily over the uneven floor, we climbed the two steps which led to the higher level of B entry, and for a minute turned the white beams of our lights in every direction. There was nothing to be seen, and no trace of any explosion except a thin, white layer of dead mist or smoke which hung lifeless, like cigar-smoke in a quiet room, about four feet from the ground; but there was a silence that was terrible, for in it we listened in vain for the voices of men. At first we assured ourselves that there was no one around the bottom of the shaft, for we had expected that some one, injured by the explosion, might have been able to crawl toward the man-hoist; but there was no trace of any human being.

Walking slowly and peering before us through the bull’s-eyes of our helmets, to right and left, we advanced down the entry, our lights cutting the blackness like the white fingers of twin searchlights. Suddenly, far off in the darkness, there came a sound. It was laughter. We stopped and listened. High, shrill, and mad the notes caught our ears. Again we advanced, and the laughter broke into a high, shrill song. To right and left we swung the bars of our searchlights, feeling for the voice. Suddenly the white light brought out of the darkness a tangled mass of blackened timbers which seemed to fill the entry, and into the light from the pile of wreckage staggered the figure of a man, his clothes hanging in sooty ribbons, and his face and body blackened beyond recognition. Only the whites of his eyes seemed to mark him from the wreckage which surrounded him. In a high-pitched voice he called to us, and we knew that he was mad. ‘ Come! Come!’ he cried. ‘ Let’s get out of here. Come on, boys! Let’s go somewhere’; and then, as his arms instinctively caught our necks, and we felt for his waist, he began talking to Jesus. With our swaying burden, we turned and retraced our steps down the entry, and fifteen minutes after our descent into the mine, we handed out of the hoist the first man rescued, to his friends.

Once more came the vision of the great black wall of people in the lights at the mine-mouth, and again we plunged down into the blackness and silence of the mine. Reaching bottom, we walked as rapidly as we were able beyond the point where we had found the madman, to where the great structure of the scale-house had once filled a crosscut between B entry and the aircourse behind it. Where once had been solid timbers and the steel structure of the scales, now remained nothing but the bare walls of the cross-cut, swept clean by a giant force, and in the entry the crumbled and twisted wreckage marked where the force of the explosion had dropped it in its course. With a swing of my light I swept the floor of the cross-cut. Halfway down it, on the floor, lay what seemed to be a long bundle of rags. I knew it was a man. There was no movement as I walked toward it, and as I knelt over it a sudden impulse came to me to disbelieve my first thought that this could be a man. Prevented from seeing clearly by the bull’s-eye of my helmet, and the poor light of my electric lamp, I felt for his chest, and as my hand touched his breast, I felt that it was warm and wet. Perhaps he was alive. I ran my light along the bundle. Those were his feet. I turned it the other way. The man was headless. Instantly I got to my feet, and in the faint glimmer of McPherson’s light I saw that he had found something in the wreckage. ‘What is it?’ I bellowed to him through my helmet. He pointed with his ray of light. A body hung in the mass of wreckage, thrown into it like putty against a screen. We turned and continued our way up the entry.

Halfway between the shafts there was a temporary canvas stopping, and we knew that if we could tear this down, the air from the fan which had been speeded up must short-circuit, and pass through B entry, clearing out the after-damp before it. Most of the men, if not all, would be in this entry; of that we were confident. By tearing down the brattice and freeing the direction of the ventilation, life might be saved.

As I have said, I had entered the mine on my first trip with a short charge of oxygen, and in the urgency had failed to replenish it before going down the second time. As I turned from the cross-cut a sudden tugging at my lungs told me that my air was runing low. Beside the track, in a pool of water, lay a blackened object that I knew to be a man. He was the only one I recognized, and I knew that it must be Daman, one of the gas-inspectors, — the body was so small. A few feet beyond him lay another, and another, all blackened and unrecognizable. The white wall of the brattice gleamed suddenly before us, and in a second we had torn it from its fastenings. One side had already disappeared from the force of the explosion. Why it was not all torn to ribbons, I do not know.

As I turned, I called to McPherson that I was in, and as I spoke a sudden blackness engulfed me. My air was gone. The sights of that awful night and the long strain of the months of dangerous work on high-strung nerves had caught me. I came to with my eyes closed, and a clean, sweet taste of fresh air in my mouth. I thought I was above ground, but opening my eyes I saw that I was looking through the bull’seye of my helmet at a blackened roof, dim in the single shaft of a lamp. McPherson was talking to me. He had dragged me from where I lay to where he had felt the air blow strongest. My weight, increased by the forty-five pounds of the helmet, made it impossible for him to think of moving me unaided. There was no time to summon assistance. In the strong current of air, he had opened my valves and trusted that, revived by the fresh air, I could reach the hoisting-shaft under my own locomotion before the after-damp could overcome me. Faint and reeling, I got to my feet; we started down the entry, our arms about each other’s necks. We were both staggering, and halfway to the sump I fell. Then we crawled and rested and crawled again. I think I remember splashing in the water at the foot of the hoisting-shaft, but nothing more. We had saved only one man of the twenty-seven who had entered the mine.

  1. In the November number of the Atlantic Mr. Husband described the mine and the conditions of life attending it. In the December issue he gave an account of a long fight with fire. — THE EDITORS.