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Mine Disasters in the United States


Old Ben Coal Company
Old Ben No. 8 Mine Explosion

West Frankfort, Franklin County, Illinois
July 24, 1947
No. Killed - 27



See also:   Old Ben No. 11 Mine Explosion, Nov. 29, 1917
Old Ben No. 8 Mine Explosion, Dec. 1, 1929

From the Google News Archives:  External Link
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The Old Ben Coal Corporation Mine No. 8 is located in the southern outskirts of West Frankfort, Franklin County, Illinois.  An explosion of methane gas, accompanied by a limited combustion of coal dust, occurred in this mine at 12:35 p. m., July 24, 1947, resulting in the death of 27 men.  All of the deaths were due to burns and violence resulting from the explosion.  Four men in the immediate explosion area were rescued but one man died approximately ten hours after being taken to the surface.

At the time of the explosion 264 men were in the mine, and all those not in the immediate area of the explosion escaped, unaided.  A number of the men did not know an explosion had occurred until after reaching the surface.  Four hundred ninety-five men were employed at the mine, of whom 382 men were employed underground in two shifts.

The average production of coal amounted to approximately 3,500 tons per day.  The mine had experienced two previous explosions on January 14, 1921, and December 1, 1929, which resulted in the death of eight men and injury to 20 others.


(From the 1947 Annual Illinois Coal Report)

Possible Causes of the Explosion

The possibility of ignition of the methane gas by drills, the loading machine, and cutting machine, can be discounted because none of the machines were in operation at the time of the explosion.  The possibility of ignition of the methane gas by drills, the loading machine, and cutting machine, can be discounted because none of the machines were in operation at the time of the explosion.

The possibility of ignition of the gas by men smoking in the area cannot be disregarded.  Burned match stubs and other evidence of smoking was found in the mine and in the cars of mantrips.  Employees taking part in the rescue work following the explosion deposited matches and smoking materials above ground before re-entering the mine.  During the process of identification of the bodies in the temporary morgue, matches and other smoking materials were recovered from at least seven, and perhaps more of the bodies.

The evidence definitely indicates that employees were smoking underground in spite of the fact that a no-smoking rule was in force.  There is a very good possibility that the ignition of gas was caused by smoking in room 2 inby the 8 north panel, (bodies were found near the face of this room), for it was in this room that explosion forces were observed to be outby, and soot and coke particles were in evidence.  There could have been an accumulation of gas in this room, prior to the explosion, in spite of the fact that no gas was found following this explosion.  It is also possible that gas could have moved into the active working area from the abandoned workings, and ignition of this gas could have been caused by smoking, and the flame could have followed a gas trailer into the abandoned workings.

Because of the tight area in the abandoned works the force of the explosion would have rebounded into the active workings and could have been accompanied by the combustion of coal dust, which was smothered by the rock dust.  At least one person in the inspection party initially proposed that the nucleus of ignition was in this area, even though no known source of ignition was then in evidence.  The testimony of one of the survivors speaks of a number of pressure waves being felt.

The possibility of the ignition of the gas by the gathering motor at the 8 north panel is questionable because there is no positive evidence that the motor was in operation at the time of the explosion.  Since the motor has been switching in the immediate area it is more reasonable to suspect that the ignition would have occurred when the motor entered the area.  Since the motor was located at the 8 north panel it is reasonable to expect that the flame and force of the explosion would have penetrated the 7 and 8 panels, but this was not the case to any appreciable extent.

The body of the motorman for the motor was found about 60 feet in by the 8 south panel on the 14 entry.  For the body to be in this location there are three possibilities: (a) the motorman was in the 14 entry visiting with five other men at the time of the explosion; (b) the body was blown through the demolished door in the crosscut by the force of the explosion, but the motor was not located opposite the crosscut; (c) the motorman walked into the 14 entry following the explosion, but this is scarcely possible when the force of the explosion in this area is considered, and the fact that men in nearby rooms were apparently killed almost instantly.

The possibility that gas accumulated in the abandoned workings and was ignited by (a) spontaneous combustion of mine wastes of gob, or (b) sparks produced by roof falls is supported by the evidence and data collected.  Smoke and fumes were observed at approximately room 7 inby 8 south panel which was indicative of the presence of a fire in the abandoned area.  Whether the fire existed prior to the explosion is of course unknown.  The odor of a gob fire is usually easy to detect, but a fire could have existed from spontaneous combustion of old timbers, rags, or paper waste.  It is also entirely possible for high-temperature sparks to be created by falls of rock and pyrites from the roof.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned
  1. The explosion was caused by the ignition of an accumulation of methane gas and was accompanied, on a small scale, by the combustion of coal dust.
  2. The exact source and cause of the explosion could not be determined and is unknown.  It is believed the source could have been: (a) in the abandoned areas, or (b) in room 2 inby the 8 north panel.  The cause of ignition could have been: (a) spontaneous combustion or sparks caused by a fall of roof, or (b) smoking by personnel.
  3. No data or evidence have been found which indicate the explosion was due to the negligence, or violation of State Mining Laws, by any individual or group of individuals now alive.
  4. The main lessons learned from this explosion are: (a) where active working places are adjacent to abandoned areas, a hazard may be created by accumulations of gas in the abandoned areas.  Abandoned areas should be properly ventilated and examined, or when proper ventilation and examination become impossible the areas should be sealed off from the active working areas.
    A ruling to this effect has subsequently been made by the mining board; (b) smoking by personnel in gassy mines is extremely hazardous.  A State law prohibits smoking in gassy mines and the personnel in such mines should not consider it to be their personal right to violate the law and endanger the lives of all personnel in the mine.


Official List of the Deceased:
  • Clesta Berra, of Herrin, timberman, aged 60 years, married.  He leaves a widow.
  • Herbert D. Bidwell, of West Frankfort, electrician, aged 49 years, married.  He leaves a widow
  • Thomas F. Bower, of West Frankfort, tracklayer, aged 25 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.
  • J. Martin Childers, of West Frankfort, clean-up man, aged 74 years, married.  He leaves a widow.
  • Hiram B. Chitwood, of Johnston City, tracklayer, aged 22 years, single.  He leaves a dependent mother.
  • Peter DeJulius, of West Frankfort, electrician, aged 42 years, married.  He leaves a widow and five children.
  • Arthur Fritts, of West Frankfort, tracklayer, aged 29 years, married.  He leaves a widow and two children.
  • Gustave Gaubautz, of West Frankfort, clean-up man, aged 48 years, married.  He leaves a widow.
  • Gus G. Grant, of Johnston City, tracklayer, aged 59 years, married.  He leaves a widow
  • George D. Griffith, of West Frankfort, asst. mine manager, aged 41 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.
  • Willis Hilliard, of Marion, machine man, aged 41 years, married.  He leaves a widow and six children.
  • Louis Marlow, of Herrin, tracklayer, aged 43 years, single.
  • Thomas McPheron, of Johnston City, timberman, aged 64 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.
  • Adolph Nickelvich, of West Frankfort, driller, aged 36 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.
  • Louis F. Owens, of Johnston City machine man, aged 51 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.
  • Thomas M. Palmer, of West Frankfort, triprider, aged 41 years, single.  He leaves a dependent child.
  • Domenico Pircentini, of West Frankfort, tracklayer, aged 67 years, married.  He leaves a widow.
  • George Raymond, of West Frankfort, clean-up man, aged 60 years, single.
  • John Sebben, of Johnston City, timberman, aged 57 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.
  • Willie Ray Smith, of Thompsonville, driller, aged 46 years, married.  He leaves a widow.
  • Curtis O. Stagner, of West Frankfort, motorman, aged 43 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.
  • Raymond C. Stevens, of Benton, machine helper, aged 32 years, married.  He leaves a widow and two children.
  • Giles C. Summers, of Benton, tracklayer, aged 46 years, married.  He leaves a widow
  • Horace M. Walton, of West Frankfort, triprider, aged 44 years, single.  He leaves a dependent mother.
  • Robert W. Wicker, of West Frankfort, clean-up man, aged 62 years, married.  He leaves a widow.
  • James T. Wilson, of West Frankfort, machine operator, aged 37 years, married.  He leaves a widow and two children.
  • John P. Yattoni, of West Frankfort, triprider, aged 32 years, married.  He leaves a widow and one child.


Death Toll in West Frankfort Mine Disaster Mounts to 27
The Alton Evening Telegraph, Illinois
July 25, 1947

West Frankfort, Ill., July 25. (AP) -- Twenty-seven coal miners were killed in an underground mine explosion yesterday, and a federal mine inspector who examined the seared corridors today said ignition of gas caused the blast.

William Gallagher, Evansville, Ind., the federal mine inspector who began his examination of Old Ben Coal Company's No. 8 mine while rescuers still sought the last three bodies said "It was a gas explosion.  There's no question about it."

Twenty-six of the approximately 200 miners at work in the diggings 500 feet underground were found dead about a mile and a half south of the main entrance shaft.  One of five seriously injured miners removed to a hospital died today.

Many miners working in other parts of the mine said they did not know there was an explosion when they received orders by telephone to leave the mine.

Gallagher said, "the area where the explosion occurred had been amply and recently rock-dusted, and this appears to have been a factor in localizing its effect."

Harold L. Walker, state mine director, said the area where the explosions occurred had been rock-dusted Wednesday -- the day before the blast.

(Rock-dusting -- the sprinkling of rock dust on the floors and walls of the mine entries and passages -- is a safety procedure designed to keep down coal dust, which becomes explosive when suspended in certain concentrations in the air.)

The bodies of the 26 men recovered from the mine had all been brought to the surface today and were placed in an emergency morgue set up in the gymnasium at the Central junior high school.

Gas Hampers Work

Work was hampered by carbon monoxide gas and the last three bodies were buried beneath coal and debris.

Harold L. Walker, Illinois director of mines and miners, said many of the bodies were badly burned indicating, he said, a fire had broken out following the explosion.

During the rescue operations there had been conflicting reports of the total number of men trapped.  The rescue teams worked frantically to reach the men in the belief they had been trapped by rock slides and might be alive.  However, early today Walker said all 26 men were dead.  Earlier Coroner D. J. Clayton of Franklin County said 28 had lost their lives.

The blast occurred within one day of four months from the explosion last March 25 at the Centralia (Ill.) Coal Co.'s mine which cost the lives of 111 miners.

News of the explosion in mid-afternoon spread quickly through this coal mining city of 13,000 and hundreds of persons rushed to the diggings on the southern outskirts.

Rescue crews were hastily organized and calls were put in for extra supplies of blood plasma.  Relatives of the miners flocked to the mine.  Mrs. Arthur Fritts of West Frankfort, was one of the first at the scene and learned that husband, Arthur, 27, was among the miners trapped.  She was taken to a hospital after she collapsed but later returned and was at the mine when her husband's body was brought to the surface.

The Rev. B. P. Mongan, Catholic priest of nearby Herrin, recognized three of his parishioners when bodies of 15 miners were brought to the surface.  Although they were dead he administered the last sacraments of the church.

Flee To Surface

Dr. R. W. Smith, chief surgeon at the UMW hospital said the injured miners told him the explosion occurred in an air circulation cut called the Thirteenth East Cross Cut.  Scores of the miners who fled from the digging after telephoned instructions from the surface said they did not know there had been an explosion.

Walker told newsmen after he had made an inspection of the mine that he could not "make a guess" as to the cause of the blast.

William W. Lamont, manager of the UMW hospital, said the injured miners told him that dust ignited by a spark from a motor caused the explosion, and a fire followed.

Gov. Dwight H. Green of Illinois in Chicago yesterday preparatory to leaving for a brief vacation in California, postponed the trip and hurried to the disaster scene.

Green named Walker state mine director following the disaster at Centralia and a subsequent investigation.  The No. 8 mine was last inspected on May 9 and "conformed to all state mine safety regulations," the state mines and minerals department said.




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