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Sonman Shaft Coal Company
Sonman "E" Mine Explosion

Portage, Cambria County, Pennsylvania
July 15, 1940
No. Killed - 63

USBM Final Investigation Report  (15.5 Mb)  PDF Format
Holmes Safety Bulletin Article, March/April 2012
Huntingdon, PA Daily News Article, July 16, 1940
Fatality Listing

See also: Sonman Mine Hoisting Disaster, Aug. 17, 1907

Successful Rescue

Some of the survivors of the blast were slightly burned by the hot air that rolled through the mine.  Thirteen of them came out of the 18th heading and eight escaped from the 16th heading.  Edward Bem, one of these survivors, said the men crawled on their hands and knees and finally made their way to the 'dip' where they were rescued after an undisclosed period.

From the Holmes Safety Bulletin, March/April 2012 Edition

An explosion occurred in the Sonman "E" mine of the Sonman Shaft Coal Company, Sonman, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, at about 10:40 a.m. on July 15, 1940.  Sixty-three men were killed as a result of this explosion, of which number about fifty-five were killed by afterdamp and 8 were killed by burns and afterdamp.  Few, if any, of the men were killed outright by burns and violence and it is probable that the eventual cause of death in all cases was due to afterdamp.

Eighteen men escaped without assistance from the immediate explosion area and 12 others working on the same split of air escaped unaided.  About 350 were in the mine at the time of the explosion.

Thirty-four bodies were found behind a barricade (at least 700 feet inby No. 3 haulage on 16 right) which had been ineffectively erected and located.  Seven others were also found back of this barricade some distance inby from the group of 34 at and near the face of room No. 3, 16 right.  A note found on one of the victims indicated that at least some of them were still alive at 6:00 p.m.

The explosion was not general throughout the mine, but traversed a relatively small area in Nos. 16, 17 and 18 right entries off the north dip, and the flame of the explosion did not reach the entrance to these entries on the north dip or the faces of the entries.  No water was used in this mine for allaying the coal dust.  Rock dust had been sparsely applied at some locations on haulage entries.

The Safety Division of the Bureau of Mines at Pittsburgh, PA, was informed by telephone at about 12:45 p.m. that an explosion had occurred, by District Mine Inspector W. H. Filer when Filer arrived at the mine.  He was unable to give any details but requested assistance and stated that he and Inspector Michael Thomas were entering the mine to obtain additional information.  A group of Bureau of Mines employees, consisting of J. J. Forbes, G. W. Grove, M. J. Ankeny and E. J. Ristedt in a Bureau automobile and H. R. Burdelsky and J. W. Pero in a Bureau truck loaded with oxygen breathing apparatus, gas masks and accessories, left the Bureau of Mines station at 1:10 p.m.  They arrived at the mine at about 4:00 p.m. and, after conferring with company officials.

Messrs. Forbes, Grove, Ankeny, Ristedt, and Pero entered the mine at 4:45 p.m.  Upon reaching the affected area about 45 minutes later, they found that the ventilation had been restored up 17 right to about No. 20 room.

From this point employees of the Bureau of Mines participated in the recovery work until its completion at 8:30 a.m.  when the last body was recovered and left the mine about 11:00 a.m., July 16, 1940.

Method of Mining

The mine is opened by two main dip systems of entries leading from the main slope.  These main dip entries, known as the north dip and the south dip, are approximately parallel to each other and were driven roughly 6,000 feet apart.  These main dip entries were originally driven in triplicate, but during the later life of the mine, sets of five entries were projected and driven on the main dips.  Room entries are turned off the main dip entries to the right and left at about 500-foot intervals, approximately on the strike of the bed.

These entries are generally driven in pairs from which the rooms, about 30 feet wide, are driven to the rise parallel to the main slopes on about 60-foot centers.  In the more recently developed portions of the mine, the rooms are driven through from one pair of entries to the air course of the adjacent entries.  While pillars have previously been extracted, the present system of mining, which is a modification of a mining method known as the Gary system, was laid out with a view to obtain the greatest possible recovery of coal without extracting the pillars.

Instead of the total extraction of pillars whereby the roof is caused to break and cave, rooms and entries are driven with the cut-throughs at legal intervals (not less than 16 yards nor more than 35 yards apart).  After rooms have been driven to their limits, additional crosscuts are driven through the room pillars, leaving stumps for the support of the roof.  Also whenever entries are no longer used or needed for haulage purposes, the chain pillars are partially extracted by driving openings through them.

Complete pillar mining was abandoned in order to avoid fracturing the roof, which in the past created a very serious and costly drainage problem.  The present system was projected for an 80 percent recovery of coal but it is reported that only about 72 percent recovery is actually attained.


The mine is ventilated by means of an 8 by 213-foot double-inlet Jeffrey Retrovane centrifugal fan driven by a 150-horseoower Westinghouse motor connected to the fan by means of a multiple belt drive.  The fan is offset from the opening about 15 feet, but explosion doors have not been provided.  It is operating exhausting and when the air was measured after the explosion, it was circulating about 100,000 cubic feet of air per minute at a water gage of about 4.2 inches.  The fan is not reversible.

No separate source of power is available for driving the fan in the event of failure of the regular power circuit and no auxiliary fan or auxiliary drive has been provided.  A warning device has been installed on the fan whereby any stoppage or slowing down of the fan would give both a visual and audible warning at a nearby dwelling house, the residence of the mine electrician.

Arrangements have been made to have some member of the family always present, and in the event of a warning being sounded, the cause of the interruption is investigated and the mine is notified by telephone. A much more reliable method would be to arrange to cut all power from the mine by means of an electric relay switch system activated by the vane in the fan duct, in the event of failure of the fan.  At the same time, a visual and audible warning device should be installed at the mine surface plant or superintendent's office which would give warning in the event of failure of the fan.

Explosion and Recovery Operations

The first indication of any trouble inside the mine was in the form of a telephone communication received by the mine superintendent on the surface.  Some unidentified person underground, possibly one of the hoisting engineers, notified the superintendent that the air had reversed.

The superintendent immediately sent someone to check on the fan at the Portage slope and another person to check on the air movement in the Shoemaker manway, which was a main intake.  He then got in touch with the mine foreman, who had just arrived at the bottom of the main slope from the south dip, and directed him to proceed to the north dip to investigate the trouble.

Subsequently, the superintendent notified the district mine inspector that some trouble had occurred at the mine.  The mine foreman proceeded immediately down the north dip to 14 right where he met the fire bosses who were just coming off shift, the safety inspector, four loaders, and a machine helper who had escaped from the explosion area in 16 right and 12 men who had come out of 16 left after the explosion.  After checking the men who had escaped, the mine foreman, accompanied by the safety inspector and fire bosses, proceeded down the north dip, checking all stoppings between the intake and return airways as they progressed toward 17 left.

At 17 left they found the air-lock doors on 17 left blown inby, causing a direct short circuit of the air from the right side of the north dip.  They then removed a door which was not in use from 17 right and installed it at the location of the first air-lock door in 17 left.  They then proceeded to 18 left and found the door partially damaged and noted that the forces were inby.  They repaired the door temporarily and entered 18 right and found the manway door blown inby.  They repaired this door and traveled in 18 right to the first door of the air lock located about 400 feet inby from the entrance to 18 right.  This door was in place but had the top board blown off.

After repairing this door they tried to get up to the second door of the air lock, about 200 feet inby from the first door, but were unable to reach the second door because of smoke and dust.  The party then returned to 17 right, which was the main air intake for the section, and traveled about 300 feet into 17 right when someone reported that two men had come out of 18 right and that nine (actually eleven) more were on their way out.  The party then returned to the air lock door in 18 right with the intention of short-circuiting the air into 18 right when they were advised that the 18 right men had reached the north dip safely through the No. 1 face entry of 18 right at about 2:00 p.m.

The mine foreman and others then returned to 17 right and found that the air was short circuiting into the 17 right air course through the crosscuts.  They were discussing this short circuit when Inspectors W. H. Filer and M. W. Thomas of the Pennsylvania Department of Mines arrived.  From this point air was conducted up 17 right entry by closing off all openings to the left with canvas stopping.  Arrangements were made to obtain additional air by cutting it off from the south dip sections of the mine.  After proceeding up 17 right for some distance, the party was joined by two additional State mine inspectors, R. D. Joseph and D. J. Keenan.  The first working place in 17 right, No. 15 room, was explored by apparatus crews where three bodies were recovered and a fourth located.

A smoldering fire consisting of an article of clothing belonging to one of the miners was later discovered and extinguished in No. 15 room about 1.30 a.m. when the fourth body which had previously been located was removed.  An advance was made toward No. 2 haulage road where it was found that a door had been blown out and the air was short-circuiting.  While erecting canvas stoppings in the No. 2 haulage, the party was joined by J. J. Forbes, G. W. Grove, M. J. Ankeny, E. J. Ristedt, and J. W. Pero of the Bureau of Mines, at about 5:30 p.m.

The closing of No. 2 haulage enabled the further exploration of 17 right entry.  The first work performed after the Bureau men reached the point where work was being advanced was the recovery of two bodies in 28 room.  A recent fall had occurred in the room and the roof was still "working" and falling as the bodies were being recovered.  The party then proceeded up 17 right to the junction of No. 3 haulage, which extends from 18 right to 16 right.  In the immediate vicinity of this point six additional bodies were found.  After closing a door on No. 3 haulage road and replacing four stoppings which had been blown out at the junction of the haulage road and 17 right, the recovery crews advanced inby on the No. 3 haulage road by temporarily replacing the stoppings with brattice cloth to the junction of 16 right air course and the No. 3 haulage road.

At this point, footprints were observed in the dust which had obviously been made after the dust from the explosion had settled.  Shortly thereafter, the bodies of two men comprising a motor crew were found on the "tight" side alongside the first and second cars of a nine-car trip of coal attached to an electric locomotive.

The exploration work was then continued and on reaching the 16 right haulage road, other footprints were observed.  Upon tracing these footprints up the entry during an exploration by Messrs. Forbes, Grove, and Pero, wearing gas masks, numerous additional footprints were observed, leading to the belief that the men were probably barricaded at some inby point.  As the ventilation had not been fully restored and there was still considerable carbon monoxide in the air, it was decided that a crew wearing oxygen breathing apparatus should make an exploration, if possible, to the face of 16 right.  This crew, after exploring a short distance in 16 right, returned and advised that they had located a canvas stopping across the 16 right entry at about room 26.  Messrs. Forbes, Grove, Pero, State Mine Inspector R. D. Joseph, and a few others then advanced to this canvas stopping, and after several calls which were unanswered, they decided to remove the stopping.

After removing this stopping, a second canvas stopping, partially erected, was found 52 feet inby the first one.  Two bodies were found lying outby the second brattice and 32 bodies were found inby.  At about this time, the advance crews were joined by four additional State mine inspectors, G. J. Steinheiser, R. E. George, P. H. O'Neill and W. G. Knapper, who relieved the four State mine inspectors who had been on duty up to this point.

Following the removal of the bodies from 16 right entry, additional explorations were made in the rooms leading off 16 right and seven additional bodies were found near the face in No. 30 room.  Two bodies were found lying outby the second brattice and 32 bodies were found inby strewn along the 16 right entry throughout a distance of about 170 feet from the second brattice to where the last body was lying.

While these bodies were being removed, explorations were made to the faces of 16 right heading and air course, but no additional bodies were found.  Another barricade, erected by some or possibly all the men found in 16 right, was found at the entrance to No. 5 haulage road off 16 right.  This barricade was well erected but the enclosed area was limited in capacity (a space 48 feet long, 17 feet wide and 4 feet 3 inches high).  While the evidence indicates that at least some of the men spent several hours in this barricade, it had been abandoned before the men met their death and no bodies were found in it.

At about this time, the advance crews were joined by four additional State mine inspectors, G. J. Steinheiser, R. E. George, P. H. O'Neill and W. G. Knapper, who relieved the four State mine inspectors who had been on duty up to this point.  Following the removal of the bodies from 16 right entry, additional explorations were made in the rooms leading off 16 right and seven additional bodies were found near the face in No. 30 room.  The locating of these bodies and the exploration of the remaining rooms completed the recovery work on 16 right.

The crews then returned to the junction of 17 right and the No. 3 haulage road and continued the exploration work by conducting the ventilation into 17 right inby the No. 3 haulage road.  After progressing a short distance in this entry, four additional bodies were found opposite the first crosscut in No. 31 room off 17 right.  After exploring the faces of 17 right and 17 right air course and 17 butt heading and air course, two additional bodies were found in 17 butt air course opposite the next to the last open crosscut.  This completed the exploration work on 17 right and 17 butt and the crews again returned to the junction of 17 right and the No. 3 haulage road.

At this point, the party was joined by H. B. Lindeman and E. L. Christensen of the Bureau of Mines.  The recovery crews then proceeded down No. 3 haulage road to 18 right.  It was known that at least one body was lying on 18 right haulage road (No. 3 face entry) as it had been seen by some of the men who escaped from this entry.  After erecting a few canvas stoppings to advance the air, it was finally decided to send an oxygen breathing apparatus crew down 18 right to recover the body that was known to be there and locate the body of the last missing man.  On recovering these two bodies, the last of which was reached about 8:30 a.m. by the apparatus crews, all the missing men having been located, further work was suspended and the recovery crews returned to the surface on orders from the State Department of Mines.

During the coroner's inquest the questions were raised as to why the recovery work was not conducted through 16 right, why if air had been put into 16 right it would not have reached the barricaded men and why the barricaded men were not reached sooner.  The reasons why these things were not or could not be accomplished are as follows:
  • It was not feasible to conduct recovery operations by way of 16 right because the roof in the lower portion of this entry was known to be bad and danger boards had been placed to prohibit anyone from using the entry as a travelway.  As a result of the unsafe roof conditions and previous falls, it was considered that travel on this entry was extremely difficult and dangerous.  This was strengthened by the reports of the men who escaped from 16 right entry.  Therefore, if it had been decided to enter the affected area by way of 16 right, it would have resulted in serious delay.  In addition to this, if an effort had been made to conduct the ventilation up 16 right, it would have been necessary to construct numerous stoppings to prevent the air from entering the rooms between 16 and 17 right and the rooms driven off 16 right toward the barrier.  This would have required a tremendous amount of labor and materials and much more time than taking the air up 17 right as was done during the recovery work.

  • Air could not have reached the barricaded men by putting it into 16 right regardless of the amount of air available or the amount used because it would have returned through opening leading from 16 right toward 17 and 18 right long before reaching the barricaded men.

  • It is believed that everything humanly possible was done, under prevailing conditions, to reach the barricaded men at the earliest possible moment.  It must be realized that, after the explosion occurred, the obtaining of men and materials and getting them into the mine, a distance of 2 miles or more, was a task of considerable magnitude.  Moreover, after the material was delivered to the bottom of the north dips it was necessary to carry it by hand, as recovery work advanced, from the north dip at 17 right, up 17 right to No. 3 haulageway, and from there to the junction of No. 3 haulageway and 16 right, a distance of about a half a mile.  This in low coal required time and arduous labor.
Cause of the Explosion

An investigation to determine the cause of the explosion was conducted jointly by the Pennsylvania Department of Mines, the Koppers Coal Company, the United Mine Workers of America, and the Federal Bureau of Mines, but separate reports are formulated by each of these agencies.  The State's commission consisted of R. E. George, chairman, R. D. Josoph, George Steinheiser, and M. W. Thomas.  The State's investigation was conducted by Richard Maize, acting Deputy Secretary of Mines.  The company was represented by L. C. Campbell, John Lindley, M. A. Evans, 0. V. Simpson, Victor Duras, and J. M. Baker.  The United Mine Workers of America was represented by James Hess, Joseph Yurich, and Harvey Younkers.  The Bureau of Mines was represented by J. J. Forbes, G. W. Grove, M. J. Ankeny, and H. B. Lindeman.  The underground inspection and investigation of the explosion area was conducted on July 18, 19, 23, and 25 and hearings of witnesses were conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Mines, July 20, 24, and 26.

State Inspectors' Findings and Conclusions
  • Ninety-three (93) men were employed in the No. 2 air split, one continuous circuit of air, and that the employment of more than seventy (70) men legally allowed on this air split, did not contribute as to either cause or propagate the explosion.

  • Control of the air current in the No. 2 air split by single doors did not provide a constant supply of fresh air as required by law.

  • The air door situated at the junction of 17 right and the No. 3 haulage road, which was found open and so secured following the explosion, did interrupt the air flow in 16 right and that this interruption did not contribute to either cause or propagate the explosion.

  • Coal dust, present in variable quantities along the roadways, travelingways and airways, was thrown in suspension, carried by the explosion and subsequently deposited, did not contribute as to initiate the explosion and played little part, if any, in its propagation.

  • The fresh intake air used to ventilate the No. 2 air split, and which traversed the roadway in which trolley wire was suspended from the roof and from which an open type electric trolley locomotive was operating, was first passed through an area in which pillars were mined to such an extent as to permit abandonment, and mined to such an extent as to cause caving.

  • Caving occurred in the No. 28 room off 17 right and that such caving was induced by the partial extracation of the coal seam, and was superinduced at this place by the presence of clay veins and a barrier pillar.

  • Caving in the No. 28 room off 17 right occurred just prior to the explosion and continued for some time afterward.

  • The explosive gas was suddenly liberated in considerable volume from the fall which occurred in the No. 28 room was carried in the air current.

  • A trolley locomotive operating in the 16 right heading was in the path of explosive gas contaminating the mine atmosphere.

The explosion which occurred was initiated by the ignition of explosive gas in the mine atmosphere, by an arc or spark from a trolley locomotive operating at or near the junction of the No. 3 haulage road and the 16 right heading, and was propagated by gas in the mine atmosphere.  The ignition was indirectly brought about by the failure of the system of mining, which failure might have been anticipated, yet was not expected.

Coroner's Inquest

A coroner's inquest was conducted by Patrick McDermott, coroner of Cambria County, which included the testimony of witnesses before a coroner's jury of five men at Portage, PA on August 13, 14, and 15.  After hearing the testimony of mine officials, inspectors, survivors and others, the jury rendered the following verdict: Freeman George and sixty-two others came accidentally to their death by asphyxiation and first and second degree burns in slope of Sonman Shaft Coal Company at Sonman by gas explosion on July 15, 1940, gas being ignited by a trolley locomotive.  The ignition was superinduced by the failure of system of mining and negligence of officials directly in charge of mine management at time of explosion: Victor Duras, Superintendent; Leslie Steele, Mine Foreman; Guy Wahl, Assistant Mine Foreman.

63 Perish in Flash Explosion at Portage Mine
Daily News, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania
July 16, 1940

Portage, Pa., July 16. -- The death toll in the flash explosion at the Sonman coal mine rose to 63 today.

The bodies of 63 workers were removed from the mine by gas-masked rescue workers and taken to a temporary morgue at this town's municipal building.  The last body to be taken from the mine was that of Thomas Shaw, a wireman trapped deep in the 18th entry.

A coroner's inquest will be held as soon as state and federal mine inspectors have completed their probe.

As rescue crews broke into heading No. 16, the death toll rose sharply this morning.  In the 16th entry, the bodies of Section Foreman James Monteeth and several members of his crew were found behind a barricade they had thrown up in a desperate attempt to save themselves from the deadly gas.

As the blast tore through the north dip section of the 50-year-old mine at 11:15 a.m. yesterday, a tongue of flame burned the bodies of some of the miners.  No bodies were crushed, however, as there were no cave-ins as usually occur in mine explosions.

Company officials estimated that state compensation payments to widows and other dependents of the 63 killed will approximate $500,000.  Under a voluntary group insurance plan maintained by the company, beneficiaries of 42 of the victims who carried the insurance, will draw $500 for each of the 42.  This insurance is being paid today by the company.

Because the victims lived in widely scattered communities, no mass funeral is planned for the dead.

This was Pennsylvania's worst mine disaster in more than a decade.  On March 21, 1929, an explosion at Parnassus, Pennsylvania, Westmoreland County, killed 46 while 195 died in a blast at Mather, Pennsylvania, Greene County, on May 19, 1928.

Wives, children and relatives of the entombed miners, standing at the shaft entrances and soaked to the skin by a heavy rain, silently watched the bodies being removed.  They were not permitted to view the dead early today.

Twenty-one men escaped a few minutes after the explosion believed caused by gas or rock dust had rumbled through the north dip, trapping the men working almost 8,000 feet from the headings of entries 16, 17, and 18.

The disaster at Portage, a town of less than 1,000, some 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, was the third mine explosion in the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia soft coal district this year.

Ninety-one miners were killed at Bartley, W. Va., Jan. 10, when an explosion ripped the No. 1 mine of the Pond Creek Pocahontas Company, and 72 were killed in an explosion at Willow Grove No. 10 mine, owned by the Hanna Coal Company, at Neffs, Ohio, March 16.

Sheriff C. W. Davis of Cambria county and 100 special deputies, aided by state police, established a temporary morgue in the municipal building here.

Thirteen of the bodies were recovered last night.  To prevent scenes and avoid confusion, the remaining victims were being identified at the bottom of the drift some 500 feet from the mine entrance, by fellow workers and company officials.

Coroner Patrick McDermott said the bodies were only slightly burned.  He said the cause of death was probably gas, as air circulation in the blasted area was stopped when the battens, cross pieces used as supports between the entries, were blown out.

The explosion occurred approximately 12,000 feet back from the mouth of the slope entrance.  About 225 miners were working in the entire "E" seam at the time of the blast, but only 33 were believed in the three headings affected.

Some of the 21 men who escaped were slightly burned by the hot air that rolled through the mine.  Thirteen of them came out of the 18th heading and eight escaped from the 16th heading.  The majority of those killed were trapped in the 17th heading.
"I saw a flash and I heard a loud noise and rumbling," Edward Bem, one of the survivors, said.  "Then things started to fall all around and I yelled 'explosion.'"

"It was hot and difficult to breathe and we got down and stopped for a while.  The air was better down low.  We crawled on our hands and knees and finally made our way to the 'dip' where we were rescued."
The Sonman mine, one of the largest in Cambria county, rich bituminous field, employs 1,200 miners, 400 to a shift.  The mine is the livelihood of the stricken town.

Listing of Miners Killed In the Portage Mine Explosion
From the Johnstown Tribune
July 16, 1940

Alex Uveges, Cassandra
John Hebda, Jamestown
Lewey (Lewis) Montel, Ebensburg
James Monteith, Foreman, Ebensburg
John Lester, 22, Sonman
John Panyak, Sonman
Joe Smith, 33, Cassandra
Joseph Kuzen, Portage
August Snyder, 32, Beaverdale
John Trunak, Cassandra
Charles Klut (Klatt), Portage
Emmett Moyer, Gallitzen
August Bem, 27, Portage
Frank Szura, Jamestown
Floria Passa, Portage
Steve Sarvash, Cassandra
Frank Chileski, Portage
Joseph Holliday, 38, Jamestown
John Thomas, Portage
John Simo, Portage
Leo Etienne, Jr., Portage
Mike Simo, Sr., Portage
George Zimmerman, Portage
Thomas Huff (Hough), Portage
Joseph Simo, Portage
John Simo, Portage
Harry McVicker, 40, Portage
William Wisniskie, Portage
Peter Sibis, 32, Lilly
Laird Zimmerman, 20, Portage
George Stupaki, Portage
Clayton Baranett, 29, Portage
William Flynn, Portage
John Rudash, Portage
Doly Rudash, Portage
Mike Chernisky, Portage
John Dovibrovik, Portage
John Inman, Cassandra
John Prestash, 32, Jamestown
Steve Doman, 32, Beaverdale
Andrew Bobrowciz, Portage
Edward Mantel, Ebensburg
Ted Pitman, Portage
Philip Hufford, 30, Lilly
John Metarko, 35, Portage
Walter Szura, Jr., Portage
John Mutskovak, Jamestown
John Dubulls, Portage
Angelo Concino, Lilly
Arthur McDonald, 26, Portage
Freeman George, Portage
Steve Gavalak, Portage
John Nowobelski, Cassandra
John Schmendak, Portage
George Lutz, Sonman
Melvin Owen, Wilmore
Stanley Kovalshinski, Jamestown
Homer Leap, 22, Cassandra
Thomas Shaw, Portage
Thomas Leap, Cassandra
Chester Bradley, 26, Cassandra
Melvin Leap, Cassandra
Horace Chappel, Portage

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