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Kentucky Straight Creek Coal Company
Belva No. 1 Mine Explosion

Fourmile, Bell County, Kentucky
December 26, 1945
No. Killed - 24

USBM Final Investigation Report  (4.9 Mb)  PDF Format
The Fourmile Mine Disaster by Jadon Gibson  (MS Word and PDF format)

From the Google News Archives:  External Link
(news links open in a separate window)

Successful Rescue

Approximately 3 hours after the explosion, nine miners barricaded themselves noting, "nine miners in here, 11 a.m. Thursday" on a pile of slate.  More than 50 hours later, they were discovered and brought to the surface.  The first out and the oldest of the group was Al Bennett.  He died while awaiting rescue.  The other eight miners were: Charles Lingar; McKinley Leath; William Branstutt; Ivan Philpot; Joe Hatfield; Huey Miller; Tom McQueen; and Bud Towns.  Mr. McQueen died a few hours after the rescue.  Mr. Towns died several months after he was rescued.

35 to 50 Miners Trapped Behind Explosion at Ky. Straight Creek Mine at Fourmile
Middlesboro Daily News, Kentucky
December 26, 1945

Between thirty-five and fifty miners of the Kentucky Straight Creek Coal Company are trapped in an explosion at the Kentucky Straight Creek Coal Company at Fourmile, of which W. E. Lewis is owner.

Five rescue crews have worked their way back about twelve hundred feet.  The site of the explosion is about two miles underground.

Smoke first emerged from the mine between 8 and 8:30 this morning.  It is unknown whether the explosion was caused by dust or gas.  Miners had gone in at 7 o'clock.

There are a hundred and fifty miners employed in this particular mine which is one of several operated by the company at Fourmile.

Nath Center, foreman of this operation, is among the men trapped.

Pineville police and State Highway patrolmen are at the scene.  Rescue crews are from Kettle Island, Black Star, Three Point and two from the Straight Creek Mine.

Other rescue crews are said to be en route.

The Red Cross has been notified.

Hot coffee is being served to those who are awaiting news at the drift mouth, which has been roped off.

Little Hope Held For 30 Miners Trapped In Burning Straight Creek Mine Today
Middlesboro Daily News, Kentucky
December 27, 1945

Washington, Dec. 27 (UP) -- R. R. Sayers, director of the Bureau of Mines, estimated today that it would take two or three days to reach trapped miners in the Pineville, Ky., mine explosion.  Sayers said the mine had been inspected and found in good condition last August.

Officials at the Kentucky Straight Creek Coal Mine would not even hazard a guess as to the length of time it will take to reach the thirty men known to be trapped behind an explosion in the mine which happened about an hour after the "man trip" went in yesterday morning.  Officials say they cannot tell what conditions will be met during the rest of the distance.

At noon today the crews were reported to be four thousand feet, or nearly half way to where the men are believed to be, and it was stated "the picture does not improve as the crews advance."

Rescue workers early yesterday afternoon discovered that the mine is ablaze, and little hope is held out that any of the men will be brought out alive.  The crews sent word back that they are fighting fire after fire (sixteen fires had been reported extinguished today) and that smoke, fumes, and monoxide gas, fills the air.

An emergency call was sent out at noon for volunteer emergency workers, as nearly exhausted rescue workers drove doggedly forward.

Outside the Red Cross under the direction of the Rev. E. L. McClurkan, acting head of the disaster committee of the Pineville chapter, served coffee and sandwiches to members of the families gathered near the mouth of the mine to hear the lastest word.

List of those trapped as given out by mine officials today with ages and number of children where known is:

30 Trapped Men Listed
  • Jim Bain, 50, Fourmile, (five children, the oldest 28)
  • Harmon Lovell, Jr., 18, Fourmile, unmarried, youngest man in mine
  • Charlie Lingar, 36, Fourmile, (six or seven children)
  • Joe Hatfield, 36, Wallsend, (six or seven children)
  • Jim Tom Gambrell, 52, Fourmile, (five children)
  • Floyd Gambrell, 24, Fourmile, (son of JIM TOM), (two children)
  • Henry Honeycutt, 40, Fourmile, (seven children)
  • Kinley Leach, 45, Fourmile, (about seven children)
  • Nath Centers, 62, mine foreman, Fourmile, (three children)
  • Delbert Lockard, 33, Fourmile, (seven children)
  • Tom Fisher, 53, Fourmile, (seven or eight children)
  • Bill Brandstedder, 41, Fourmile, (seven or eight children)
  • John Henry Branstedder, 41, Fourmile, (brother of BILL), (four or five children)
  • Bill Carroll, 29, Straight Creek, (three children)
  • Frank Mills, 57, Straight Creek
  • Ivan Philpot, 51, Straight Creek, (several children)
  • Reed Lawson, 35, Flat Lick
  • John Brock, 30, Fourmile, (two children)
  • Hugh Westerfield, colored, Flat Lick
  • Bud Parton, Straight Creek
  • Hobe Sulfridge, 44, Fourmile, (four children)
  • Huey Miller, 34, Fourmile, (seven children)
  • Bud Townes, 52, (colored), Pineville
  • James Collins, 39, Pineville
  • George Matthews, 50, Dorton's Branch
  • Jim Emory, 32, Pineville
  • Bill Brock, Fourmile
  • Dave Sharp, 49, Pineville
  • Tom McQueen, 30, Pineville
  • Albert Bennett, 64, Pineville
  • Jim Fisher
  • Champ Patterson
(From the above listing the survivors were: Bill Branstudder, Joe Hatfield, Kinley Leath, Charles Lingar, Huey Miller, Ivan Philpot, and Bud Towne.)

On hand were nine members of the Pineville police force and seventeen State Highway patrolmen.  Persons without a reason for being at the scene of the disaster are stopped at the underpass on the Old Barbourville Road, some two miles away.

The "man trip" left about thirty minutes late yesterday morning according to mine officials, because of the holiday just past, and there were for the same reason fewer men than would normally have gone in to work.  There was no official check made of the men as they entered yesterday, but a check was made of all employes early yesterday afternoon to ascertain the list of the workers.

About an hour after the men had entered the electrician told the superintendent, W. E. Lewis, Jr., that "something had happened."

Smoke was emerging from the mouth of the mine

The nature of the explosion still is unknown

(From Washington, the United Press quoted Daniel Harrington, a Bureau of Mines official, as saying it is "not likely" any of the miners are alive because of gas, fumes and the dreaded black damp.  He said that first reports indicated an explosion or fire "of considerable violence." The automatic ventilating fans stopped when the explosion knocked out the electrical circuit in the mine.)

The explosion ripped the shoring of the main tunnel for hundreds of yards and the rescue squads had to replace supporting timbers as they progressed in fear of a cave-in.  All of the rescuers wore gas masks.

Rescue Path is Barred

Lester Morris, mine employee, said he issued lamps to at least 28 workers before the explosion, but could not be sure that all who received lamps entered the mine.

Among those in the mine, Morris said, were three or four from a second operation of Kentucky Straight Creek Coal Company transferred for the day because of a shortage of miners reporting for work after the Christmas holiday.

Harry Thomas, head of the State Department of Mines and Minerals, left Lexington at noon to assist in the rescue and investigation work.

Miners from other shifts, familiar with the tunnel, said unless the trapped men were able to follow the fresh-air course to its source their chances for rescue would be small.

One other hope, these miners said, would be for the trapped men to brattice themselves into a room inside the mine and seal off the foul air.

The Straight Creek Company's mine is one of the oldest in Bell county.  Federal mine inspectors who chicked it last summer said in was in satisfactory condition.

Today the mine filled with avalanches of slate, knee deep in water let in when shoring burst under the force of the explosion.  Electric wiring and ventilating lines were torn to pieces by the blast.

May Have To Seal Off Mine

Old time miners admitted the possibility that the emergency workers might be losing the battle with fire in the mine and that as a last resort it might have to be sealed off to quench the flames.

Crewmen are using the latest type of mine fire fighting equipment and all wore smoke masks.

Mine Operator W. E. Lewis is the most positive observer.  He said the men "knew every inch of the mine and know how to barricade themselves off again gas if the explosion didn't get them."

Harlan County Inspector James Bryson sent a call for new rescue workers to take the place of those who had worked much of the last 24 hours with little rest.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army and Pineville churches set up lunch stands here and workers and relatives of the trapped men were being fed coffee and sandwiches.  The emergency crews were working in relays of 20 men each.

"I think there's only an outside chance they're still alive down there," said William Leach, 19-year-old taxi driver, and son of McKinley Leach, one of the trapped men.

Ellas Elliott, 30, brother-in-law of miner Reed Lawson, looked at the mine entrance and shrugged.  "What can we do but hope?" he asked.  He still wore his medical detachment uniform and said he had just been discharged.

Hardest blow to the assembled relatives and friends was the announcement that it would take perhaps another 24 hours to get through to the men.

Most of them bowed their heads.  And tears flowed down the cheeks of women and men alike.

Goes for Third Shift

Leonard Mills, 22-year-old miner from Candinal, gulped a cup of hot coffee and picked up his safety hat today and said he was going back for his third five-hour shift in 24 hours.

"Sure, I'm going back in," he said.  "I'll keep right on working until we get those men dug out of there."

Somewhere inside -- blocked off by tons of rock and dirt burned timbers -- was his father, Frank Mills, one of those 34 or more who went into the mine the day after Christmas.

Mrs. Anna Mae Bain, wife of miner James Bain and foster morther of his five children, stood wet-eyes in the cold as black faced men struggled in and out of the slope shaft, working at the slate falls a mile under the hill.

"Jim will come out alive," she cried.  "He simply has to do that for me and his children."

Fourteen-year-old Bobbie Bramlett, granddaughter of the Fourmile postmaster, who was acquainted with nearly all of the Straight Creek miners said that "most people down here think they're all dead."

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