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The Moberly Mine Disaster
Esry Mine Fire

Moberly, Randolph County, Missouri
August 18, 1936
No. Killed - 2

Successful Rescue

Following a 72 hour entrapment in the burning Esry Mine near Moberly, Missouri, two of four men were rescued.  The deceased were Ed Stoner, one of the owners, and George Dameron.  The rescued men were Demmer Sexton and Jack McMann.

In August of 1936, at the Esry Mine near Moberly, a huge fan in a wooden shack that was used to ventilate the mine shafts overheated, and the wood structure housing caught fire and then spread down the timbers into the mine shaft.

Four men and a mule were trapped in the mine shaft by the fire, which slowly descended toward their location.  The mule was being used to haul coal from the side shafts to the central shaft where it could be hoisted to the surface.

Ed Stoner and Demmer Sexton had opened the abandoned mine shaft near Moberly the summer before.  They figured a small crew could bring out enough coal to pay expenses and make them a meager living.  They hired Jack McMann to help them mine the coal, George Dameron to work the mule and a third man to operate the hoist from above.

On Tuesday, August 18, Stoner, Sexton, McMann and Dameron went down in the shaft to work while the other hired man operated the hoist that was powered by a "wheezing Buick engine" as one news story reported.  When the fire broke out, the hoist operator spread the alarm.  As the fire burned the supporting timbers, they collapsed into the shaft along with a great deal of debris.

Fortunately, the four men were in one of the horizontal shafts and were not crushed.  But they had to worry about getting enough air and not succumbing to toxic fumes.

The miners had to deal with what was called blackdamp.  Blackdamp is a mixture of gases remaining after the oxygen is depleted in coal mines and includes carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor.  The word damp comes from the German word dampf, meaning vapors.

By the time other miners from the area arrived at the Esry Mine, the main shaft was beginning to fill with debris.

The rescuers knew that time was of the essence, and they worked through the night.

Only two men could go down into the 7-foot-wide shaft at a time and pile timber and rocks into a 1,000-pound capacity bucket.  They took turns working 20 minutes at a time, while a third man watched them for any signs they were being overcome by noxious fumes.  Despite that, several workers were overcome and had to be pulled out.

The pile of debris was over 40 feet high in the 110-foot-deep shaft, however 15 feet of that was the hoist cage that was covered up at the bottom of the shaft.

Family, friends, rescuers and spectators numbered around 3,000 people at the mine site by the second night of rescue efforts.  Two hundred of those were miners from other mines in central Missouri who were there to work as rescuers.

A giant hose was used to pump fresh air down to the rescue workers.

It was Thursday night before the miners made it far enough down that they uncovered the top of the cage at the bottom of the 110-foot deep shaft.

Next they had to aerate the horizontal shafts to make it safe to enter them to search for the four men.

It was Friday before the rescuers heard the shouts of one of the trapped miners.  They radioed to the surface that they had heard the trapped men’s voices.  Because of that, word quickly spread through the crowd, including the families of the trapped men, that they were alive.

However, when the rescuers finally got to the four trapped miners, two of the men - one of the owners, Ed Stoner, and the mule wrangler, George Dameron - were dead.  The oldest of the four, A.W. McCann, who was 50 years old, was in the best condition.  The other survivor, co-owner Demmer Sexton was in critical condition when they pulled him out.

McCann said that Stoner was the first to die about two hours after the fire and cave-in.  Dameron succumbed not long after that.  He said Sexton was unconscious most of the 72 hours they were trapped.  Rescuers worked on Sexton an hour and a half before they could even bring him to the surface.

Two Safe After 72 Hours In Mine; Other Pair Dead
Dallas Morning News, Dallas, Texas
August 22, 1936

Moberly, Mo., Aug. 21 (UP). -- Two of the four miners who were trapped for seventy-two hours in the Esry coal mine were found alive Friday.  Their two companions had died.

A rescue party immediately took A. W. McCann, 50, of Moberly to the surface in strong condition.  Emergency treatment had to be given the other survivor, Demmer Sexton, 37, whose condition is critical.

Edward Stoner, Jr., 37, copartner in the mine venture with Sexton, and George T. Dameron, 27, their Negro mule driver, had succumbed to poison gases.

McCann was taken to the surface by Coroner Jesse Maddox and State Mine Inspector Arnold Griffith in one of the huge iron buckets with which rescue workers had hoisted tons of debris from the caved-in-mine.

Stimulants Rouse One

Although McCann had no relatives at the mine opening, his appearance was greeted with a great cheer by the hundreds of spectators.  He waved and smiled.  Then Maddox announced Stoner had been found dead.

Stoner’s young wife and daughter, Dolly, 6, screamed in horror.  Ed Stoner, his father, turned away with his head on his arm.

Meanwhile down at the 110-foot level of the mine where the rescue party had been led to the miners’ refuge by McCann’s lusty shouts, men were working on Sexton, who was unconscious.

He was roused with stimulants.  Rescue workers wrapped him in blankets and had him hoisted to the surface.  Sexton’s wife, who has remained calm throughout, said, “I knew it all the time.  That’s why I’ve been waiting.”

Bodies of the Negro and Stoner were taken up last.  The crowd, however, was interested only in the survivors and their families.

Premature Announcement False

The Sexton family had been waiting in a hearse near the mine opening.  They jumped down from the unusual perches and danced about hugging each other.

The grief of stricken relatives was most poignant because a few minutes before the official announcement by Maddox, relatives had been told all four trapped men had been found alive.

When the rescue party head McCann’s shouts they telephoned to the surface, “We hear their voices.”

This report was interpreted by some on the surface as meaning all were safe.  The erroneous report was announced to the crowd as it went out over radio broadcasting wires.

The shock of learning their kin was dead after once believing them alive was more than some of the relatives could stand.  Friends took the Stoner family and the Negro’s wife and her 4-month-old baby to their homes.

Hug Floor for Oxygen

Coroner Maddox prepared to summon a coroner’s jury.

The miners were found on the floor of an abandoned tunnel.  They had barricaded themselves behind an airtight wall, but left their refuge several times.

Rescue workers who burrowed through more than eighty feet of fallen debris encountered blackdamp and white damp, two of the worst perils of mining.  By hugging the floor, Sexton and McCann apparently found enough oxygen to sustain themselves.  The mule the miners were using to haul their coal had died from the fumes.

Sexton rallied well after being given stimulants and physicians held high hopes for his recovery.  McCann was able to talk briefly of the ordeal.

“Stoner died about two hours after the cave-in,” McCann said.  “Dameron went soon afterward.”

Two Hundred Miners Help

The miners were trapped between a mass of burning timbers and dirt and the fumes from the blasting operations they had performed just after the fire broke out on the surface.

Two hundred miners from a score of mines in Central Missouri participated in the Herculean job of clearing out the three-quarters filled main shaft.  Almost to a man they worked without sleep, alternating in the shaft in relays of four and six, wielding picks and shovels.

The rescue party which entered the 110-foot level was led by Griffith who has not had a moment’s sleep since Tuesday.  With him were Frank Bunch and Evans Jones, his assistants; C. A. Herbert, supervising inspector of the United States Bureau of Mines, and three volunteer miners, Willie Mikel, Marvin Wolf and Carl Toalsom.

The men carried gas masks but so thorough had been the job of aerating the mine with great fans and suction machinery that the masks were not needed.  The air in the tunnel had been clear for three hours before the rescue was consummated.

Afraid They Would Stop
"I crawled up to the shaft when you were almost down," McCann said, "and I felt the fresh air coming down."  That was the first time in all the time that I was down there that I didn’t think you were going to give up before you got all the way down.

“I died another death every time the machinery stopped because I was sure all over again that you had given up.  I could hear you all the time.

“Stoner was the first to die.  I was talking to him about two hours after the cave in.  Right in the middle of a sentence he just fell over and was dead.  Dameron died a little later.  Sexton was unconscious most of the time.”
Physicians said Sexton would have died had the rescue been delayed another thirty minutes.  They ascribed McCann’s and Sexton’s survival to their superior physical condition.

Sexton was taken to the surface after an hour and a half of medical treatment.

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