Hello, everyone. Welcome to 2015! Can you believe it? A new year, a clean slate. I’m excited for what the year will bring.
While visiting with family over the holidays, my father began reminiscing about a piece of history that I knew a bit about, but only in the most general of terms. It had, however, impacted my family greatly.
Both my parents and grandparents grew up in Franklin County, Illinois—smack in the heart of coal mine country. While my father left that area immediately after graduating from high school (and thus, never worked in the mines), both of my grandfathers were coal miners in the Orient 2 mine from the 1930’s on into the 1950’s. My dad’s father worked day shift, and my mom’s father worked nights. Many families in that area were employed by the coal mines.
December 21, 1951, was like any other day for the miners, except for being the last shift before a scheduled shut-down for the Christmas holidays. The day shift ended and came out of the mine, my dad’s father among them. Meanwhile, 252 night shift workers entered and took their places. My mom’s father had been working three jobs at the time and took an unheard-of-for-him day off. The “coincidental” choice saved his life.
At roughly 7:30 pm, just thirty minutes or so after the night shift began, an explosion ripped through the Orient 2. Miners in the far reaches told of a rush of wind whipping past them, almost as if a train had flown by. Immediately after, smoke and dust poured into their areas and power outages occurred mine-wide. They called to the surface and were told to get out by means of safe, unaffected tunnels. With the power out, they had to use the stairs, which took three or four hours. Just over 130 men escaped unharmed. The remaining 120 men were trapped below.
In the town of West Frankfort, news of the explosion traveled quickly. At a local high school basketball game, the game’s announcer called for Dr. Barnett over the loud speaker and asked him to report to the mine for a catastrophe. Nearly 2,000 people were in attendance at the game, and nearly half left after the announcement. Everyone rushed to the mine to discover what had happened and whether their friends and family members were all right.
By midnight, brave miners from day shift donned gas masks and protective gear and descended into the mine to clear the methane gas that caused the explosion, then begin search and rescue operations. My dad’s father was among these men. Hope evaporated when they saw the carnage below ground. A locomotive weighing ten tons had been blown off its tracks. Railroad ties were torn from under the rails traversing the mine. One-foot-thick support timbers were broken clean through.
I’m sure you can imagine the rest. The recovery crews found body after burned body, many of them unrecognizable. For days, they searched and found no survivors, until…two and a half days after the explosion, they came upon a miner, Cecil Sanders, barely alive, lying atop a rock fall. The supposition is that he found a pocket of breathable air that lasted just long enough for the searchers to reach him. The rescuers rushed a stretcher and oxygen tank to Sanders, and the men carried him to safety. Of the 120 men hit by the explosion, he was the only survivor. Among his effects, they found a note scrawled on a box of cough drops—“May the good Lord bless and keep you, dear wife and kids. Meet me in Heaven.” Thankfully, his family wouldn’t have to face that, just then.
But so many more did. The deceased miners left behind 109 widows and 175 fatherless children. So many lives were lost that, once the funerals began, services were performed from early in the morning until late at night with only momentary breaks between. This went on for weeks. One woman reported that the only time available to bury her husband was Christmas Eve at 8 PM. Ironically, she’d married her husband five years earlier—on Christmas Eve at 8 PM.
The explosion rocked the entire county. While the week of Christmas should have been a joyous time, the residents of West Frankfort and neighboring towns forgot the holidays. People took down their trees and decorations, feeling it not right to celebrate when so many were grieving. Yet the spirit of Christmas was never more present than in the way the community banded together. Neighbors reached out to neighbors, and strangers offered help to those affected by the blast. It truly was a testament to the close-knit communities of small-town America.
The tragedy changed people. Many could not bring themselves to return to their jobs in the mine. My mother’s father never went back, instead choosing to work as a mechanic for the rest of his days. My dad’s father—who’d fought and nearly died in Burma during WWII—would speak on occasion of his experiences during the war, but never of what he saw in the days following the Orient 2 explosion. He did return to his job at the mine for another 8 years, but he was forever changed, as so many others with him.
Your turn: What great tragedy in your lifetime has most affected you? How did it change you? What, if any, positives, are you able to take away from the experience?
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.