Tank's Poetry
united states mine rescue association
Mine Disasters in the United States

Mining Music

Cherry Mine Disaster Narration
by Ray Tutaj, Jr.

See also: Cherry Mine Fire

On the Net:
• Ray Tutaj, Jr. web site
• Cherry Mine Fire web site
• Black Diamonds by Ray Tutaj, Jr.
• Contact Ray Tutaj, Jr.
• Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster
   by Karen Tintori

Play this audio file in your browser.  

The Cherry Coal Mine Disaster is written in the pages of history as one of the worst in our industrious nation.

Tragedy, striking in the heart of Illinois on November 13th, 1909.  Two hundred and fifty nine young miners cut down in the prime of their life.

There, in Cherry deep below the surface, miners suffered deaths unimaginable to the human mind.  Trapped below, looking for an escape before the smoke and fire caught up with them.  All of this torment because of a mine car loaded with hay was carelessly pushed to rest under a dripping kerosene torch.  There, three hundred and fifteen feet below the surface, a single spark ignited the saturated hay destined for the mule stables and the deadly blaze was underway.

During the course of that tragic and suspenseful week, many dramatic images of terror, sorrow, bravery, heroism and struggles of survival unfolded.  Split-second decisions with coal miners lives in jeopardy had to be made.  Twelve fearless heroes had sacrificed their lives to save miners from the fiery hell below.  They achieved six successful trips bringing up survivors, but on the seventh, the angry tentacles of the greedy fire scorched the life from the courageous men and death tallied up twelve more lives.

However, amid the horror and darkness of the tragedy, a moment of remarkable light shone through.  A moment of immense joy and jubilation.  After eight days passed and all remaining miners down below were assumed dead, there out of the toxic smoke-filled galleries rose twenty-one living men.  Barely alive, weakened from hunger and thirst.  Trapped in overwhelming darkness below, they entombed themselves to create one last thread of hope.

Now in the history of disasters, never has there been such a roller coaster of human emotions.  Ranging from insane sorrow to insane happiness.  The fortunate miners who endured the eight days trapped below was perhaps one of the greatest fights for survival ever to be told.  With tears of joy those eight-day men were once again able to embrace their loved ones.  But, on the other spectrum of emotions was the unbearable agony and grief such as experienced by one of the many mothers trying to identify her lost son.  She stepped into an area under a large, white canvas tent set up as a temporary morgue.  Earlier, she had identified her husband’s body and could barely stand being under the weight of so much misery.

It was a chilly November night.  The kerosene lanterns were used to illuminate the inside of the tent.  The flickering lights of the lanterns cast eerie shadows that danced upon the sides of the tent.  Shadows from the disfigured and mummified bodies laid out all in a row and shadows from the trembling widows, hunched over, trying to identify their lost loved ones.  This scene of horror was only added to by the howling wind as it rippled against the canvas tent.  The examiner held the faintly woman near the next corpse and slowly pulled down the sheet that covered the deformed figure.  The weeping woman bent over to glance at the body, then she screamed and shrieked in terror, knowing this was the remains of her precious young son, gone forever.  Identified not by recognizable facial features, but rather by buttons which she sewed on his shirt.  The God-fearing widow wept bitterly and cried out, “Why, oh Lord, why,” and then fainted over her dead son.

Such dreadful scenes were repeated for many weeks to come before all the bodies were said to be recovered.  Some believe, even to this day, that a few miners were not accounted for, due to the massive cave-ins that buried them below.

Today, the village of Cherry is still marked by the imposing man-made mountains, rising from the northern Illinois landscape.  Hills made by the coal miners.  Serving as a first memorial to the men who worked and lost their lives in the St. Paul Coal mine.  It was at this location where human emotions were stretched beyond their furthest boundaries.

A tragedy that changed the mining industry throughout the country.  The story shall live on because of its historic and dramatic interest.  It will continue to inspire people in many ways that will help to carry on this fascinating story.

After all, the appalling loss of human lives caused by the fire in the coal mine at Cherry, Illinois, calls for something more than just the recital of the number and names of those who perished.”

Copyright Ray Tutaj, Jr.

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