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Mine Disasters in the United States


Shafer Mine Explosion

Moweaqua, Illinois
December 24, 1932
No. Killed – 54



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The Shafer Coal Mine Explosion in 1932 is the only mine disaster that has occurred anywhere on Christmas Eve.  No disaster has occurred on Christmas Day.


On December 24, 1932 at 8:15 a.m., the whistle from the mine blew.  People from the town began to gather outside the mine because they knew that the whistle meant that something went wrong at the work site.  There was a methane gas explosion in the mine shaft a few minutes before they got there.

It was later discovered in a state investigation published February 1, 1933 by the Moweaqua News that the disaster was caused by the open flame of a miner’s carbide lamp which ignited the methane gas and prompted the explosion.

Only about half of the miners were working that day as it was Christmas Eve and many chose to stay home with their families or were out of the town.

54 miners were trapped 625 feet below the ground in the shaft.  However, two miners named Frank Floski and Ibra Adams did survive the accident because they were in a cage deeper in the mine.

Specially trained rescue miners from Pana, Springfield arrived to help control the situation and retrieve bodies from the mine.  When the other miners who had taken the day off arrived at the mine, they were not allowed in.

The Illinois Central Railroad brought in cars to give the rescue miners a place to sleep and food to eat.  The American Red Cross, the Moweaqua Hospital and people in the town also helped provide meals for the workers.

Although the disaster was tragic and 54 lives were lost, it brought the community together and everyone helped each other through their grief.  The rescue miners worked for six days to find all of the bodies in the mine.

The owner of the mine, Mr. Shafer said:
If the mine is reopened, every safety precaution would be taken of course.  Upon the recommendation of the state mine inspector, nothing but electric safety lamps would be used in the future.
The mine then reopened on December 28, 1933 after a service was held four days earlier to remember and honor the men who died in the disaster exactly one year before and to commemorate the rescue mine workers who helped uncover the bodies of the men trapped in the mine.

The mine started up with success and by March 7, 1934, 65 men were back working in the mine again.  In that year, a new company owned by Glen Shafer from Pana, Springfield called the Erie Sootless Coal Company of Moweaqua opened the mine after the summer.

No coal was brought up after March 1935 and the shafts were officially closed in 1936, but were never sold.  The mine faced lots of destruction from different people who would vandalize the site.  The tipple was mostly torn down by June 1940 and the remaining pieces of the structure blew over due to harsh winds and ruined the engine room five months later.

The mine was finally destroyed in October 1941 due to rotting wood in the timbers holding up the mine walls and ceiling and the shaft collapsed on itself creating a sink hole eighty feet wide.

Source: Wikipedia  External Link


Gas Blast Traps 52 in Co-Op Mine
The Alton Evening Telegraph, Illinois
December 24, 1932

Moweaqua, Ill., Dec. 24. (AP) -- Fifty-two coal miners were buried today by an explosion which blocked their escape by a fall of shale and rock, half a mile from the mine entrance.

Rescuers feared the explosion came from poisonous gas, which might bring sudden death to the entrapped men.

No sound came from beyond the barrier of debris, and there was no means of learning how many had been killed or injured in the explosion itself.

The mine's ventilating system apparently had been crushed by the falling rock, and efforts to blow fresh air into the mine through a tube were unavailing.  Chunks of rock impeded efforts to drive the tube through the wall of muck.

Rescue Effort Hampered

Attempts by a score of men to dig through the shaft with picks and shovels were hampered by hysterical wives and children of the imprisoned men.  A cold drizzle of rain drenched many of the families as they huddled about the mouth of the mine.

The mine was a cooperative venture in which the diggers were part owners, and had been making bare wages.  A citizens' committee had leased the property from the SHAFER interests of Pana, Ill., in order to provide employment.

The state department of Mines and Minerals, the Pana fire department, a detachment from the United States Bureau of Mines at Vincennes, Ind., and scores of residents of Moweaqua, volunteered to aid in the rescue efforts.

There were 115 men in the mine when the explosion occurred, causing ceilings and walls to cave in at a point half a mile from the entrance.  More than 50 were working between the entrance and the point of the explosion.  They escaped.

Many of those entrapped were stationed a mile back in the mine.  With all fresh air cut off, fears were expressed that poison gas would collect rapidly about them.

Shaft 650 Feet Deep

More than 50 men began building up the walls of the entrance shaft.  So cramped was the working space that only about a dozen could employ picks and shovels against the rock barricade.

The mine is one of the largest in this rich coal mining district.  Because of the depth of the shaft -- 650 feet -- the force of the explosion was neither felt nor heard above the ground.  The top workings of the mine wre undamaged.

Glen A. Shafer, owner of the property, was one of the first to reach it after the blast.
"The mine evidently is filled with gas," he said.  "We cannot say as yet what caused the explosion."
Shafer had closed the mine months ago as unprofitable.  Under the cooperative system, each miner shared in the profits, and they had been able only to keep their families from actual want.

Moweakua is a village of 1,200 population 12 miles south of Decatur.

The Pana Coal Company, operated by Shafer, and the Penwell Coal & Mining Company sent their mine rescue teams to the scene.


Miners Give Up Hope For Buried Men
The Alton Evening Telegraph, Illinois
December 27, 1932

Moweaqua, Ill, Dec. 27 (AP) -- Rescue workers began their grisly quest in the north wing of the shattered Moweaqua mine today for 14 men whose bodies were expected to raise the death count of Saturday's explosion to 54.

Seals placed on the entrance of the wing late Saturday in order to bottle up its fumes were broken last midnight.  The shaft was ventilated until 9 a.m.  Weary comrades of the entombed men resumed their search, finding one body in the passageway outside the wing.  It was not identified immediately, being too badly burned.

The search might take days, officials said.  Rocks, dirt and timbers had to be tunneled through, pushed aside or laboriously excavated as the rescuers bored toward their missing mates.

Immediate relief for families robbed of their breadwinners was the pressing need of the little coal community.  A committee planned to visit Governor Emmerson in Springfield today in hope of expediting succor.

R. D. Coburn, vice president of the Bituminous Casualty Co., of Rock Island, estimated that dependants would receive $200,000 under the state's compensation laws.  The state industrial commission will fix the amount of each case, with a maximum of $4,500 for a married man survived by children.

One funeral procession followed another down Moweaqua's main street today as the village buried its dead.  The need of the mourners was lessened a little when officials of the mine made out checks for back pay of the dead miners and turned them over to their widows.


Moweaqua, Ill., Dec. 27. (AP) -- Hope was stricken from Mowequals vocabulary today as this village of 1,400 moved to bury its dead -- victims of a coal mine disaster.

No longer was there a vestige or belief that the remaining 15 men trapped some 700 feet underground could still be alive.  Saturday 54 miners were entombed after an explosion loosened an avalanche of debris, clogging avenues of escape.  Already 39 bodies have been unearthed.

The rescue crew which broke the seal on the north entry to facilitate the circulation of air reported upon coming to the surface that they had seen another body lying just inside the barricade making 40 known dead.  The condition of the body was such that no attempt would be made to remove it until tomorrow when the entry is to be exploded, they said.

As to the others -- "not even a miracle could save them now."  That was the way John Millhouse, director of the rescue squads, put it.

Found At Intersection

The first funeral, that for David Cooley, was set for 10 a.m.  This afternoon services were to be held for four others.  And tomorrow services will be held for the Catholic victims with Bishop James A. Griffin of Springfield assisting the local priest.

Late last night workers hacked through shale, rock, and coal to open up the north wing of the mine where it was believed the 15 were trapped.  By noon today, Millhouse said, sufficient fresh air would have seeped through to make it safe for squads to go into that section.

The explosion apparently had its gravest effect in the north wing of the "T" shaped mine, he said.  The men there, he believed, either were victims of poison gas or had been crushed to death.

The bodies of the 39 were found in debris at the intersection of the "T" and in the south wing.

Second To Cherry Disaster

Over the Christmas holidays expert rescue squads toiled ceaselessly, burrowing in frantic efforts through debris in the hope of reaching someone alive, someone who could guide them to others who might still be alive.

The rescuers' efforts were met only by bodies.

From time to time rescue squads were driven back by seeping gas and crumpling debris.  It was necessary to "timber" and repair tunnels, propping up weak places, to make it safe for rescue work to continue.

If none are brought out alive the death toll will be the second largest for any mine disaster in the state, Millhouse said.  The largest was in 1909 when fire roared through a coal mine at Cherry, snuffing out 267 lives.




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