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1938 Newspaper Headline External Link

Red Jacket Coal Company
Keen Mountain Mine Explosion

Grundy, Buchanan County, Virginia
April 22, 1938
No. Killed - 45

USBM Final Investigation Report  (5.7 Mb)  PDF Format

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45 Killed, Three Injured in Explosion and Fire at Mine Near Grundy, VA
Charleston Gazette, West Virginia
April 23, 1938

Grundy, Va., April 23 -- (AP) -- Forty-five charred bodies were taken from the seared depths of the Keen mountain mine of the Red Jacket Coal company today, victims of the volcano-like explosions which greeted the night shift as it entered the mine yesterday.

The U. S. Bureau of Mines officials said no further bodies were in the "drifts" which extend far under the mountain.

Members of mine rescue squads worked in 30 minute relays in the furnace-like atmosphere until they had explored every avenue of the big mine.  Two members were overcome by bad air which had to be blown out before the final group of bodies could be removed.

For many hours the crews worked grimly, without hope of finding life among the victims trapped by the blast, but unwilling to cease their efforts until every miner had been accounted for.

Individual funerals were planned for the victims, who were listed as:

  1. Ernest Boyd
  2. Hammond Varney
  3. Orville Street
  4. Coy Reed
  5. J. L. Blevius
  6. Kilmer Patrick
  7. Ed Gilley
  8. Claud Dollar
  9. J. W. Combs
  10. Glenn Ratcliff
  11. Orville Norris
  12. F. Buckler
  13. Marcus Thacker
  14. O. C. Hitchcock
  15. Charlie Keen
  1. W. H. Grant
  2. Walker Sutherland
  3. Ancill Owens
  4. W. E. Willis
  5. Lee Marshall
  6. Walker Solomon
  7. Kendrick Sullivan
  8. Drew Howard
  9. E. W. Ellem
  10. Charles Miller
  11. E. H. Fisk
  12. R. H. Gentry
  13. Charlie King
  14. Granville Goins
  15. Harvey King
  1. John Rowe
  2. Smith Harrington
  3. D. E. Compton
  4. John Compton
  5. Frank Ratcliff
  6. Harper Lester
  7. Cecil Guild
  8. Floyd Compton
  9. F. S. Compton
  10. Tom May
  11. Lonnie May
  12. Tom Ratcliff
  13. Orville Collins
  14. Robert Watson
  15. Luther Ziemore

A miner named Bill Smith, who had been riding with bodies down the four-mile narrow gauge railroad for many hours, paused long enough to tell his eye-witness account of the disaster.  He was standing 50 feet from the mouth of the mine when he heard the roar and saw the flame belch from the mountain.

"The blast was away from me, and that's why I didn't get hurt," he said.  "I saw coal-carrying cars, motors, slate and timber spouted as if from a cannon."

He didn't finish his story.  Another load of bodies was ready to go down the incline to await identification by persons with tear-dimmed eyes.

Autos Clog Highways

Automobiles filled with people jammed the highways as the rescue work went on and state police erected ropes in front of the tipple so that those carrying food to the tired workers could go and come to the cable car that carried them under the mountain.  Automobiles extended for miles on both sides of the highway.

Most of the relatives of the victims remained away, but some weeping widows, fathers and mothers refused to be comforted and stayed close in search of a ray of hope.

The payroll office was beseiged for names of the dead and the missing.  Townspeople at Grundy, 12 miles from the scene, gathered with grim faces and bowed heads as the Salvation Army held a prayer service for the victims.

The lone party telephone line to the mine office was busy continuously.  Persons from far points made inquiry of relatives.

It was a steep ascent to the mine entrance but many persons went up to offer their services and to encourage workers.

"All the evidence indicates the underground crew died instantly," said C. P. Kelly, chief mine inspector of the state department of labor.  He said federal, state and mine officials would make a full investigation after the rescue work.  The mine was a new one, opened last November, and was described as up-to-date in every respect.

Mingo Keadle, vice president of the Red Jacket company, announced early in the day that air had been circulated through all passages but workers found progress slower in the main shaft than in the "B" shaft where 17 bodies were found before it was fully explored.  Three of the first 22 bodies came from the mine entrance and two were found badly burned in the "A" or main shaft.

This is the first major disaster to strike the newly developed field in Buchanan county although mine disasters are not new to southwest Virginia.  In 10 years 376 miners have been killed.

In addition to J. W. Elam and Clarence Combs, caught at the mine entrance, were in a critical condition in a Richlands hospital, and Ed Harris was suffering from several broken ribs.

All were natives of the area or from nearby West Virginia and Kentucky -- also the home of the rescue workers.

Logan, April 23. -- (AP) -- Dwellers in this populous mining region, who know too well the terrors of mine blasts, waited anxiously for the list of dead today to learn how many of their friends and relatives died in the explosion wrecked Keen mountain mine near Grundy, Va.

When the Red Jacket Coal company opened its mine high up on Keen mountain last fall, many Logan county miners went over to get work.  Employment had been slow around here and the men took advantage of the new operation to get back on the job.

Logan residents said between 30 and 40 of the 300 miners at Keen mountain came from the hills around here.  They were certain some of them were caught when a dust explosion shook Keen Mountain late yesterday afternoon.

One man said J. L. Blevins and Coy Reed, two of the known dead, came from Logan county.

It has been only a little more than a year since Logan, suffered tragedy of its own.

In March, 1937, there were 18 men killed in a gas explosion at the MacBeth mine eight miles from Logan.  Six months before that another blast in the same operation took ten lives.

Leads Rescuers

Mine Supt. E. R. Kirby, one of the first to enter the dangerous tunnels, took a lead in the rescue work.

Chief Mine Inspector Kelly expressed the conviction the explosion was caused by dust.  It happened only a few minutes after mine cars carrying the night shift had gone into the mine -- not deep, but extending well back under the mountain.

Mike Lilly was one of the few men in the area who could claim cause for happiness.  His miner's lamp refused to burn and he missed death by two minutes when he went back for another.  He said he saw two men hurled 60 feet.

"I turned and ran like hell," he said.

Relatives were kept away from the mine entrance during the night by state police.  Mrs. J. L. Blevins was the only wife who definitely knew the fate of her husband before daylight and there was some difficulty in identifying his body, decapitated by a heavy mine motor hurled down the mountain side.

The two funeral homes in the little town of Richlands had to call for assistance from neighboring towns.

State police Sgt. P. J. Sprenger, an eye-witness who said the whole top of the mountain looked as if it were coming off, told of seeing an automobile containing three boys almost blown off the highway.  The youths followed him up the mountain.

Two Blasts Reported

Some witnesses said there were two separate explosions and others said three.  A near-panic was created in the commissary of another coal company a mile away when the second blast threw merchandise off the shelves.

The mine was operating with about 300 men at the time of the disaster -- only about 1/3 of capacity.  A potential producer of 7,000 tons of coal per day the average lately has been 2,000 tons.

George White, an appliance company safety worker in the Virginia-West Virginia coal fields, compared the Red Jacket explosion with others in the area over a period of several years.  White, who has missed none in either state for a decade, said the roof, side-walls and slate connections were far above the average and did not crumble like in other mines.

He said, however, he had never seen carbon monoxide so bad in any mine.  It was slowness in reestablishing air channels that delayed removal of the bodies.

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