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Chicago, Wilmington and Franklin Coal Co.
Orient No. 2 Mine Explosion

West Frankfort, Franklin County, Illinois
December 21, 1951
No. Killed - 119

USBM Final Investigation Report  (5.7 Mb)  PDF Format
Orient No. 2 Victims' List  PDF Format
See also:   New Orient No. 2 Mine Explosion, Jan. 29, 1926
Orient Hoisting Accident, Sept. 17, 1926
Orient No. 5 Mine Explosion, Aug. 15, 1968
Orient No. 6 Roof Fall, Jul. 9, 1986

Successful Rescue

One miner, Cecil Sanders, was rescued after - 60 hours - from the Orient No. 2 coal mine in West Frankfort, Illinois following an explosion which killed 119.  At that time, this disaster was the nation's worst in the preceding 23 years.  Source document

(From the Bureau of Mines report by M. J. Ankeny, J. Westfield, W. H. Tomlinson, F. J. Smith, W. R. Chick and C. L. South)

The night shift entered the mine at the No. 4 shaft and the mantrips left the shaft bottom about 6:25 p.m. reaching the working sections about 20 to 30 feet minutes later.  About 7:40 p.m., the explosion caused the death of 118 men in the mine; 4 were rescued (1 of whom died) and 133 escaped uninjured.

The night mine manager was on the surface at the No. 4 shaft when power went off in the mine and on the surface and smoke and dust came up the shaft.  When the power came on in about 5 minutes he went to the shaft bottom and changed doors to put the stairway compartment of the upcast shaft in intake air.  He warned all the sections on the south side of the mine by telephone to bring the men to the surface immediately but could not reach any of the north sections except the 11 and 12 north, 23 west north west.  He then called the company officials on the surface.

Rescue work was started, and three injured men were carried out the new main north entries.  One of these men died.  Ten men in 1 north 24 west north erected a single canvas barricade across the entrance to No. 1 entry but did not otherwise shut of the openings to the place in which they took refuge.  Nine were dead when found; but one was rescued alive at 5:40 a.m., December 24 and recovered.

A large force of rescue workers, crews and leaders came to the mine and the operations were fully organized.  Explorations were made by apparatus crews, and ventilation was restored by erecting temporary stoppings.  Some bodies were removed by apparatus crews, all being brought out by 2 p.m., December 26.  The ventilation in the explosion area was completely destroyed, in that almost all stoppings and doors were demolished, as was one main overcast.  Wires and air lines were blown down, and haulage equipment was damaged.  Flame traversed the explosion area except the outer parts of new main north and main north entries.

The mine was gassy and methane was known to be in abandoned panels and sections of panels termed "old ends."  These areas were open to air currents which were used to ventilate active workings, and haulage roads were also on return air.  Attention was called to this hazard in Federal mine inspection reports, the last having a date of July 31, 1951, which cited the following violation of the Federal Mine Safety Code.

Methane was detected in numerous abandoned entries (termed old ends) by means of a permissible flame safety lamp.  The ventilation was short-circuited at No. 1 room in these abandoned entries generally.  Trolley locomotives were being operated 150 to 300 feet outby the old ends.

All working sections affected by the explosion were ventilated by air that had passed by the entrances to abandoned workings.  Three of these old ends were caving just previous to the explosion, releasing gas.  A gas watchman was assign to watch one of these places on the day shift.  At the time of the explosion a trip of empty cars was standing in the main ventilating door in the 3 and 4 south at 27 east north west.  This took air pressure off the abandoned 3 and 4 south entries and let gas come out onto the active workings where it was ignited, probably by an area from electrical equipment near the junction of 3 south off 27 east north west and No. 3 stub entry off 3 south.  Ignition may also have been from smoking.  The flame was propagated by coal dust and by gas from other worked out and abandoned areas.  Accumulations of coal dust principally along the roadways were not removed or rendered inert by the application of enough rockdust.  Watering methods were inadequate.

Fear 100 Dead in Mine Blast
Waterloo Daily Courier, Iowa
December 23, 1951

West Frankfort, Ill -- (AP) -- Hopes faded last night for the rescue of from 50 to 60 men trapped in an explosion-shattered coal mine after 28 burned and torn bodies were brought to the surface.

Sweating rescue crews continued their desperate probing through thick smoke and gas to reach the men 550 feet underground at the Orient No. 2 mine near here.

Appeals were broadcast for more rescue volunteers.

Sobbing wives, sisters and children of the trapped men waited courageously for word from the men who had been working on their last shift before the Christmas vacation.

Mutilated Bodies

The terrific violence of the underground blast Friday night was shown in the mutilated condition of the bodies brought up.

Estimates of the possible toll ranged to more than 100.

Walter Eadie, state director of mines and minerals, believed the death toll would be about 80.  A pit boss, Deneen Taylor, predicted the deaths would go above 100.

Mine Superintendent John R. Foster predicted the final toll would be "over 70."

Eadie said the explosion probably was caused by an accumulation of methane, a type of gas frequently found in coal mines.

A spark could have set off the gas, he said.

Experienced miners held little hope for the trapped men.

They theorized that all had died -- either in the explosion, or from lack of oxygen.

Members of the rescue teams described scenes of underground horror -- hair standing straight up on the head of one body; other bodies pressed close to the floor as if the men made final, desperate clutches for life-giving air; bodies with limbs ripped off; others roasted.

Twenty-five of the 28 recovered bodies have been identified.  They were taken to a temporary morgue at the junior high school.

Four men, who survived the blast with injuries, got out Friday night.

The mine, owned by the Chicago, Wilmington and Franklin Coal Company, is one of the world's largest shaft soft coal producers, producing three million tons annually.

It includes 12 miles of sprawling tunnels.

Sobbing Woman Wait

It was a cold, grey day in West Frankfort.  In the gloomy concrete building sheltering the main shaft, about 30 wives and mothers waited for word from the vast underground diggings.

Some sobbed, handkerchiefs to their faces.  Others sat in stoic silence.  One grief-stricken woman stood alone in a corner.

Down a long corridor -- and out of their view -- was the shaft entrance.  Acid fumes steamed into the building each time the vault-like steel elevator door was opened.  The bodies, shapeless on stretchers, under wool blankets, were carried outside to ambulances.

Other relatives and friends waited in automobiles.  A state trooper estimated that 800 cars were parked along roads in the area.

Gov. Adlai Stevenson made a hurried trip in from the state capital at Springfield.

Asks Contributions

After conferring with mine officials he said there were indications that between 60 and 90 miners were unaccounted for.

The exact number could not be determined because many of the survivors, instead of checking in at the lamphouse, went back into the pit to help with the rescue work.
"I wish there was something I could say or do to help," said Governor Stevenson.  "But I guess all I can do is pray."

"I hope people will send me contributions for the dependents of the dead and injured at this Christmas season."

"I have already solicited and received some.  It is a very sad Christmas here in southern Illinois."
Stevenson said he hoped the explosion was not due to anything that a modern mine safety code could have prevented.

Examined Friday

The mine, manned by John L. Lewis' United Mine Workers, was inspected by a certified examiner at 6 p. m. Friday, after the day shift came off duty.

A total of 1,100 men work the diggings, producing about three million tons of bituminous a year.

Asked if any special investigation was planned, Stevenson said "there is nothing to do now until an inspection is made."

A West Frankfort National Guard company, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross were lending a hand.  The Red Cross rushed in oxygen equipment and blankets from St. Louis.

It reported that voluntary donors, rallying to the cause after the explosion, had given enough blood for any emergency.

"Look Like Roasted"
Waterloo Daily Courier, Iowa
December 23, 1951

West Frankfort, Ill. -- (AP) -- A rescue worker at the coal mine disaster here said yesterday he saw several bodies "that looked like they had been roasted."

Herman Melville, relieved after 12 hours of continuous work underground added:
"The explosion was so violent, that an eight-ton piece of machinery was knocked off its rails."
Another rescue worker said the inside on the mine "looked like you took a bomb and dropped it into a subway."

Alex Balabas, who was in the pit when the blast rocked it last night, told newsmen the explosion was followed by "an air blast that hit us like a big wind."
"All of a sudden the air was full of dust and it was hard to breathe," he added.  "By the time we got into the elevator cage 10 minutes had passed and smoke was pouring into the shaft."
Balabas was given first aid for smoke and dust inhalation.

Lloyd Dupre, whose father was listed as killed in the blast, also helped with rescue attempts.  Of the mine he said:
"It's all blown to hell.  It looks like we lost them all."

One Miner is Found Alive
Waterloo Daily Courier, Iowa
December 24, 1951

West Frankfort, Ill. -- (AP) -- One miner was rescued from a 56-hour entombment Monday after the nation's worst mine tragedy in 23 years claimed 119 lives.

Taken from the shaft 550 feet below the surface was Cecil Sanders, 44, of Benton, Ill.  He was taken to the United Mine Workers hospital in fair condition.

Shortly after Sanders was brought to the surface, Mine Superintendent John R. Foster said:
"There are five men down there -- no more alive.  We believe that is all."
One Leaves Message

The discovery of the last of the 119 bodies on the day before Christmas added a poignant chapter to the desperate rescue efforts that have been in progress day and night since the violent explosion shattered the Orient No. 2 mine Friday night.

Morgue attendants reported one of the six bodies found early Monday still was warm. Found on the body of B. R. Williams, about 40, of West Frankfort, was this final message scrawled on the inside of a cigarette package and addressed to his widow, Laura:
"I love you always.  I go tonight with Christ.  I love Him too."
When Sanders' was brought to the surface there were unconfirmed reports that a few other miners had been found alive.

Flicker of Hope

This sent a faint flicker of hope through the saddened crowd of relatives waiting at the mine's surface entrance.

Later investigation led to Foster's statement that no more of the entrapped miners survived the terrific blast which killed men as far as two miles apart.

All but five of the bodies have been recovered from the debris-littered shafts.

One miner died Sunday night in a hospital of injuries received in the explosion.  He was Ralph Kent of Marion, Ill.

W. W. Lamont, hospital superintendent, said condition of the last bodies removed from the mine indicated at least six still had been alive as late as Monday morning.

Some of the bodies were warm when rescuers reached them.

Had Head in a Hole

One of the bodies was found with its head in a hole that had been hastily dug in a desperate search for life-sustaining air.

The blast ripped through the tunnels at 7:35 p.m. (CST) Friday.  It occurred about two miles back from the shaft.  And it shattered timbers for three miles in the sprawling mine which covers a 12 mile area.

Most of the trapped miners never knew what hit them.  Physicians said death in most cases was quick.

The bodies were horribly burned and mutilated.  Limbs were ripped from some.  Others were roasted.

Grave concern in the blast was shown in the flight here from Washington of Oscar Chapman, secretary of the interior, John L. Lewis, United Mine Workers president, and John Forbes, director of the U. S. Bureau of Mines.

Listing Of Casualties:

Arthur Adams
Bill Akins
Fru Austin
Roy B. Beaty
Lawrence Bell
William W. Bell
Carroll Bridges
Aston Lee Bufford
Paul Virgil Dollins
Joseph L. Fitzpatrick
Harry Gunter
Robert Hines
Audrey Huffstutler
Roy Hutchins
John Kucewesky
Upsey Lafet
Wallace Miller
Warren Mitchell
George Novak
Earl Overturf
Shelby Pasley
Andy Peska
Thomas Pierson
Vallie Pritchett
Joe Revak
Robert Rice
Charles Rose
Thomas Runnels
John Farkas
Marion Odle
John Polic
George Pollock
William D. Sanders
Chalon Howard Smith
Charles Southern
Silas Stewart
Hearstel Summers
Paul Taylor
John D. Thomas
Louis A. Trapper
Charles H. Whitlow
Carl Williams
Earl Payne
Rivers Ashmore
Guy Rice
Earl R. Rees
Paul Coats
Claude Roland
Oscar Bartley
James William Fairbanks
Archie Ferbus
John E. Haynes
Pete Petroff
Carrol Stubblefield
Alberic Vancauwelaert
Walter L. Woodward
Estel James Bradley
Rev. Oral Bradley
Lonnie J. Cairel
Guy Johnson
Charles E. Boyd
Ralph Kent
Clyde Moses
Clyde Dupree
Clarence Eubanks
Rolla Jones
Sam Montgomery
John F. Bennett
Roy Westray
James H. Williams
Charles Bartoni
Wilburn Bell
James L. Black
James O. Cantrell
Thomas Clark
Andrew Cunningham
John Dobruff
George R. Dunlap
Frank Eurard
James Fowler
Henry Otis Harper
Herschel C. Harris
Roscoe Karnes
Otis Lewis
Mynett Lockhart
Bill McDaniel
John Matelic
Claude Milligan
Harry Morthland
Edward Munday
Roy L. Neibel
R. L. Newell
Max P. Nolen
John Quayle
Joseph Quayle
Alexander Ramsay
Ellis Reach, Jr.
Ellis Reach, Sr.
Tom Roberts
John Sadoski, Jr.
Stanley Sadusky
Mike Senkus
Charles R. Smith
Earl H. Smith
George R. Smith
William R. Smith
Leon Summers
Ted Tapley
Howard Wall
Max Wawrzyniak
B. R. Williams
W. E. Wilson
William Zell Yates
Victor Younkin
Louis Zanzuchi
Joe Zeboski
Burton Spencer
Wayne Spencer
Jesse Connor

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