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Centralia Coal Company
Centralia No. 5 Mine Explosion

Centralia, Marion County, Illinois
March 25, 1947
No. Killed - 111

USBM Final Investigation Report  (6.2 Mb)  PDF Format
Centralia No. 5 - Case Study Number 1  PDF Format
Centralia No. 5 Explosion Marker
Location: 38° 30.14′ N, 89° 8.306′ W.
Marker is in Wamac, Illinois, in Marion County.  Marker can be reached from Wabash Avenue north of Hudson Avenue.  Marker is located in Wamac City Park.  Marker is at or near this postal address: 119 Wabash Ave, Centralia IL 62801
Photographed by Jason Voigt
Source: The Historical Marker Database  External Link
See more mine disaster markers, memorials, and monuments.
Song: The Dying Miner by Woodie Guthrie
Audio/Video    —    Lyrics
Video: Centralia Mine Disaster  External Link

Successful Rescues

Rescue workers kept digging in a gaseous, clogged-up passage 540 feet underground.  The picking and the toiling slow work in the thick of the lingering fumes, in about 20 hours had accounted for only nine survivors of the 131 who were caught in the blast just a few minutes before quitting time.

(From the Bureau of Mines report by M. J. Ankeny, W. A. Gallagher, F. J. Smith, Frank Perz, and J. S. Malesky)

At 3:26 p.m. the assistant mine superintendent was in the powerplant when the fuse in the fan power circuit blew out.  Knowing that something had happened in the mine, he telephoned to the district mine inspector and had the mine office call the sate mine rescue station; calls were also made to bring other state rescue teams.  He went down the shaft and found dust and smoke at the bottom.  With the mine manager he organized rescue attempts by the men at hand to bring out survivors.  As assistance arrived from outside, rescue teams were sent in to bring out survivors, explore ahead of fresh-air crews, and locate bodies.  All stoppings and doors inby 15 north 1 west and the stopping between 20 and 21 north off 4 west were destroyed.

The stoppings were replaced by temporary seals and the last body was recovered by 5:30 a.m. March 30.  At the time of the explosion 142 men were in the mine.  Of these, 65 were killed by burns and violence and 45 by afterdamp.  Eight men were rescued but one of these died from the effects of afterdamp.  The other 24 escaped unaided.  The explosion probably originated at the face of 1 west and spread north and south through the first opening to the right and left.

An underburdened shot or a blown out shot stemmed with coal dust ignited dust, and the explosion was propagated by coal dust through the workings to the north, south, and east from the junction of 1 west.  Four of the six working sections were affected by the flame and violence of the explosion.  The two remaining sections were affected only the afterdamp resulting from the combustion of coal dust.  Forces were extremely violent in some portions, while in other the velocity of the explosion was so slow that there was little of the explosion was so slow that there was little evidence of its direction.  Flame extended from the face of 1 west and the adjacent workings to a point about 800 feet from the faces of 1 and 2 west.  Flame also traversed the 20, 21, and 22 north entries off 4 west, the active rooms off 20 and 22 north and other rooms and part of 17, 18, 19 north.

The explosion was localized and confined when it reached the rockdusted zones on the entries.  It traveled through all the active rooms and some abandoned rooms, none of which had been treated with rockdust, but it failed to propagate through old workings that were partly caved, and in some parts filled with incombustible roof rash brought there from open entries by means of shuttle cars.  Large areas of open working gave relief of pressure.

The mine was exceedingly dry and dusty, and heavy deposits of coal dust were present along the roadways and on the roof, ribs and timbers in working places and entries.  Very little effort had been made to load out excessive dust, and water had not been used to allay the dust at its source.  Rockdust had been applied on active haulage entries but was not maintained close enough the faces and was not applied in rooms.  In active entries rockdusting terminated from 500 to 1,000 feet from the faces.  Permissible explosives were used in blasting, fired by fuse and detonators.  Carbide lamps were used to light the fuse.  The holes were stemmed with coal cuttings and some clay.  Pairs of drillers drilled and charged shot holes during the shift.  Six holes, 2.5 inches in diameter and 8 feet deep, were drilled in entries or crosscuts.  Bottom holes were 2 feet from the floor and top holes 2.5 feet higher.  Fuse was trimmed to obtain the desired order of firing.  Charges were from 1 to 2 pounds.  Shots were fired near the end of the working shift when the other employees were at the mantrips or enroute to them.

At the time of the explosion most of the men were at the mantrips on the entries waiting for the shot firers to complete lighting the shots so that the shot firers could ride to the shaft bottom on the mantrips.  The dusty conditions of the mine and blasting procedures were contrary to the State mining law and to the Federal Mine Safety Code under which the mine was being operated by the Coal Mines Administration.

Centralia Disaster Tuesday Afternoon May Take Heavy Toll
Dixon Evening Telegraph, Illinois
March 26, 1947

Centralia, Ill., March 26 -- (AP) -- Hope of life for the last of 122 men entombed by a coal mine explosion near here Tuesday afternoon all but flickered out today, but cheerless rescue workers kept digging away nevertheless in a gaseous, clogged-up passage 540 feet underground.

The picking and the toiling slow work in the thick of the lingering fumes, in about 20 hours had accounted for only nine survivors of the 131 who were caught in the blast just a few minutes before quitting time.

Old hands at such things were agreed: they didn't have a chance.

But the sleepless families of the men, quiet and staring, stayed on at the bleak tipple to face the worst.

Some Rescuers Saved

The nine survivors did not include some rescue men who had rushed down the shaft, fallen in the fumes and been saved by others.

Some of the dead had been counted, but there was no hurry to get the bodies up to the top.  The main effort was centered on burrowing through fallen timbers and other debris and sealing the rooms off one by one as they were searched.

Fred Hellmayer, chief electrician of the mine -- the Centralia Coal Company's No. 5, at the south edge of Centralia -- went down the shaft shortly after the blast, and he was one of the first to say the men not saved in the first few hours didn't have a chance.

If the worst fears of experienced observers are borne out, this will be recorded as the nation's worst coal mine disaster in nearly 19 years.  A total of 195 miners were killed at Mather, Pa., May 19, 1928.

Night Shift On Hand

While the night shift stood around yesterday afternoon awaiting their time to go to work, a rumbling rush of air came up from the shaft and after it came a column of milky gray smoke.  In the time it took for the word to spread, help was coming from over the country-side for miles around -- ambulances, doctors, nurses, disaster relief workers, and soldiers from Scott Field.

Held back by police lines, a crowd pressed around the pithead until long after midnight, standing in freezing weather and occasional spits of snow, as floodlights lit the scene, but today it had thinned out.

The talk of the mine people thinned out, too.  They had less and less to say, and more of them stayed at home.

State Officials Arrive

State officials were checking into the cause or causes.  The immediate official explanation was coal dust.

The injured survivors were treated at an emergency medical station in Centralia's Community center and in a hospital.  One managed a grin as he said: "I've dug my last mile of coal."

Elmer H. Baird, a "face" boss at the mine who went down last night and counted 14 bodies, put his anguish in these words today:
"I may be chicken-hearted, but every time I'd lie down to rest and close my eyes I'd see the bodies lyin' there.  I'm not going home or leave here until -- well, until it's over."

"I tell you it's pretty tough to pass up the bodies of your buddies, but we have to pass them up now because there's a possibility there are a hundred men or more back in there still alive."

"I'm not saying how it happened -- only what could have happened.  That is, those men heard the 'whoosh' of an explosion and ran out of their workings into the main passageway for fresh air."

"Then the fan stopped, the air reversed, and the 'black damp' probably doubled back and got them.  As I say, that might have happened."

76 Men Still Trapped in Mine
Dixon Evening Telegraph, Illinois
March 27, 1947

Centralia, Ill., March 27 -- (AP) -- One hundred eleven soft coal miners feared lost in Tuesday's Centralia mine explosion; of 142 men in the mine at time, 76 remained trapped, 35 are known dead and 31 rescued alive; disaster may prove coal industry's worst in 19 years.

Rescue crews working along three and one-half mile tunnel 540 feet underground fail to find a single living miner since a few hours after blast.  State mine inspector says week may be needed to recover all victims' bodies.

Kinfolk of missing diggers keep sad vigil at improvised morgue set up in nearby bus garage.

U.S. Senate orders inquiry after Senator Brooks (R-Ill.) declares safety codes violated under federal administration of nation's mine operations; Centralia Coal Company officials withhold reply comment.

AFL United Mine Workers local officer says union asked Illinois governor year ago to see that safety laws are enforced "before we have a dust explosion": Governor Green says investigating committee reported complaint "sounds a good deal worse than it really is."

Circuit court of Washington County, Illinois, promises grand jury investigation of whether criminal negligence was involved.

State inspectors say examination of mine a week ago showed various unsafe conditions, company officer says, "We have been working on recommendations but all cannot be accomplished within a few days."

Centralia, Ill., March 27. -- (AP) -- Fears that the death toll of Tuesday's mine explosion ultimately would reach 111 were intensified today as the bodies of 18 more miners were brought up the shaft of the Centralia Coal company's No. 5 mine.

The recovery of these victims brought to 35 the number of known dead and left 76 still trapped below.  A rescue squad leader gave those pinned underground "no chance at all."

A heavy snow fell over the grim setting as rescue squads, after working through the early morning hours, brought the second group of dead miners from 540 feet below the ground.  There were only a few persons at the pit as the bodies were placed in ambulances and taken to a temporary morgue in a nearby bus garage.  Last night 16 bodies were removed to the garage.  Earlier one miner removed from the mine on Tuesday, died.

Bodies Twisted Bruised

An unidentified rescue worker said the bodies of the 18 brought from the pit today were twisted and bruised and clothing on some were burned, indicating they had been nearer to the explosion than the 16 miners who were found last night.

As the death toll mounted, with a rescue leader predicting it would reach 111 company officials said rescue attempts would be pushed, "we're not going to give up."

The toll of 111 dead predicted by William J. Rowekamp, rescue leader and recording secretary of the Centralia local of the AFL United Mine Workers whose members worked the mine, would rank the disaster as the greatest in the nation's coal fields since 195 lost their lives in 1928 at Mather, Pa.

Company Revises Totals

The company presented a revised total of the number of miners who had been in the mine at the time of the blast.  Vice President W. P. Young said 142 men had been in the mine and 31 had been removed alive.  Earlier he said 151 men had been below and 30 had been rescued alive.

Rowekamp's views were echoed by other rescue workers who said that not a single victim has been taken alive from the mine since Tuesday night several hours after the explosion.

Opinions varied widely as to the length of time that would be required to complete exploration of the more than 3 mile tunnel, 540 feet below ground, in which the trapped men had been working.

Driscoll O. Scanlan, an Illinois state mine inspector, said because of slow progress it might take a week to probe to the end of the seven-foot high passage.  Mule power was being used in preference to machinery for fear of electrical sparks detonating gases collected in the workings.  Rescue workers wore gas masks.  Side diggings off the east-west passage were being boarded up to assure beter ventilation for rescue workers.

30 Work Through Night

However, a federal mine inspector who asked that his name not be used, said the squad of 30 who worked grimly through the night had "checked all but two entries on the east-west passage" and said he believed the men still unaccounted for were in these side passages.

This inspector, who had been active in rescue work, commented "I have a good idea of what their chances are," but declined to elaborate.

Bodies taken from the mine were moved temporarily to an improvised morgue in a nearby bus garage.  Relatives of the miners held a vigil at the mine entrance during the day and early evening yesterday as the tedious rescue work far underground proceeded slowly and a heavy snow began falling in 25-degree temperatures, they went to their homes.

Miners Who Perished in the Centralia No. 5 Mine Disaster:

Joe Altadonna
Rodrigo Alvarez
Joe Ballantini
Alvin M. Barnes
Martin Basola
Nick Basola
Domenick Beneventi
Harry A. Berger
Celso Biagi
Harold Jack Bryant
Joe Bryant
Edward Bude
Otto Buehne
Raymond C. Buehne
Tom Bush
John Busse
Charles Cagle
Theodore V. Carriaux
Arthur H. Carter
Joseph Cerutti
Domenic Cervi
Anton Chiarottino
Paul Comper
Clifford Copple
Frank Copple
Leo R. Dehn
Eugene Erwin
George Evans
Frank Famera
Andrew Farley
Walter H. Fetgatter
John Figiellk
William F. Fortmeyer
Ray Fouts
Odia Lee Francis
Luther Frazier
Martin Freeman, Sr.
Martin P. Freeman, Jr.
Albert Friend
Bruno Gaertner
Angelo Gallassini
Tony Giovanini
John Grotti
Louis Grotti
Adolph Gutzler
John H. Gutzler
Fred W. Gutzler
John W. Gutzler
Henry Hoeinghaus
Edward Hofstetter
Gustave Hohman
Ned L. Jackson
Henry Knicker
Phillip Knight
Joseph Koch, Sr.
Charles Kraus
Fred Laughhunn
Domenico Lenzini
Pete Lenzini
Miles Mccollum
Charles Mcgreavey
Clarence Mcgreavey
John Mazeka
William Mentler
Fred Moore
Elmer G. Moss
Henry W. Niepoetter
Charles Oestreich
George Panceroff
Frank Paulauskis
John Pawlisa
Charles L. Peart
Joseph H. Peiler
Alva F. Petrea
Walter Pelker
Peter Piasse
Julius Piazzi
Louis Piazzi
John Pick, Sr.
John Placek
Alfredo Pollacci
George Powell
Richard Privette
Glenn Purcell
Nick Reggo
Jacob W. Rethard
Forrest Rhodes
Carl Rohde
Daniel C. Sanders
Jacob Schmidt
Archie Schofield
Lee Gerard Shaw
Anton Skrobul
Clarence Smith
Ray O. Smith
Andrew Spinner
Joseph Spinner
Alfred Stevens
H. W. Sundermeyer
James Tabor
Anthony Tickus
Stanley Tickus
Anton Tillman
Emmett Uhls
Dude Vancil, Sr.
Joe Vancil, Sr.
Mark L. Watson
Joe Zinkus
Max Zonarini

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