A Gaping Black Mouth – Macbeth 1937

THE BODY OF MINE FOREMAN FLOYD FIELDS BEING LOADED INTO THE AMBULANCE

Only six months after the first Macbeth explosion on March 11, 1937, the Macbeth Mine blew again killing eighteen men. As a March rain fell, scenes from September past were being replayed. Some of the men who helped carry out bodies in the first explosion were now mangled corpses in the same entries they had trudged over bearing stretchers.

Again, family and friends rushed to the gaping black mouth of the Macbeth Mine. The women could only imagine how the entries and rooms looked where their loved ones were lying hurt or dead. The miners knew the dead bodies would be sprawled where they fell . . . lying in complete darkness until a rescuer’s light fell upon them.

Florence Gay Browning was a seventh grader at Dehue Grade School, and went to school with many of the victims children. She remembers the dark dismal days following the explosion. Her father, Ed was on the safety team that helped recover the bodies. “No one attended school, and we just stood around the mine entrance in the pouring rain like immovable objects. I’ll never forget the mournful whine of the cable bringing another body to the surface, and the screams that followed when the miner was identified. If I had taken color pictures they would have turned out black and white. Day after day . . . all I remember is grey and black tones.”

Like the first explosion, the blast hit only one section of the mine about a mile from the bottom on 2 West and 18 Right. Several men escaped without injury. Some by walking up the slope, and some by a screw-type escape ladder with 152 steps. The authorities soon knew where the explosion occurred, and had a list of men in each area.

The bodies of Joe Fry and Troy McCoy were located about a mile and a half from the foot of the slope. They were hurdled a hundred feet from the motor in which they were riding. Floyd Fields’ body was found hundreds of feet away from Fry and McCoy. All of their bodies were badly burned, and apparently they were killed by the force of the blast. Fields was formerly employed by the Lyburn Mine, and had worked at Macbeth Mine for three days when he was killed.

Mrs. R.B. Kimball came to the scene carrying her baby of a few months, and her other three children were hanging to her dress-tail. She remarked she had faith her husband would make it out alive. Her brother, Tom Tiller had died in the first explosion, and she knew her husband was working in the section that blew. Finally, a body was brought to the surface. As rescuers passed by Mrs. Kimball with a blanket-covered miner, she was told it was the body of her husband. She collapsed. Women came to her aid, and onlookers stuffed fingers in their ears to block out her screams. She was led away sobbing, “He was so good to me.”

Fred Tiller, another brother of Mrs. Kimball was on the rescue team of this explosion, and stated the second blow was much stronger than the first. He said timbers were blown out, and that slate had fallen in the main haulage ways. It took two hours per corpse to recover a body over the mountains of rock falls.

Fourteen bodies were removed during the first five days following the explosion, and funeral services were quickly arranged. R. B. Kimball and Gazel Vankovich both had six children. Tuphon Podlaska’s funeral was held at the home of his friend, Joe Orloff. Podlaska was from Russia, and had one relative in America. At the time of his funeral his cousin had not be reached. Heavy slate falls four feet wide and two-hundred-fifty feet high hampered rescue efforts. The last four bodies recovered were Hubert Fleming, George McCormick, and twins, August and Jack Tusek. Fleming, a native of Kentucky had recently divorced his wife on grounds of desertion. He planned to marry Margie Lovelace in the spring.

Jack Tusek’s was the fifteenth victim to be recovered. His body was taken to the Harris Funeral, and sealed in a vault. His twin, August was the last body to be removed from the blast torn mine. The twins bodies were placed in a double coffin and they were laid to rest in one large grave. It had taken rescue teams of sometimes forty men working eight hour shifts sixteen days to recover all eighteen men.

Fire Bosses had reported the Macbeth Mine free of gas and safe for the men, and yet the cause of the explosion was blamed on methane gas. Methane gas is colorless, odorless, and flammable. It is formed when plants decay in places where there is little air. It is the primary cause of mine explosions. The Macbeth Mine blew with such force and intensity that no small amount of gas could have caused so much damage.

Macbeth was the third mining town on Rum Creek. It was located about eight miles southeast of the city of Logan. Dehue was the neighboring mining town, and my parents lived there when both disasters took place. Dad often talked about the terrible disasters, and how unsafe he thought the mine was. However, Macbeth went on to produce millions of tons of coal without another major disaster.

During the mining boom in the fifties there were seven or eight mining towns on Rum Creek. All the mines have long since closed. Most of the houses and all of the tipples have been torn down. Still, the ghosts of these once thriving mining towns haunt me.

Name Age Survivors
Tom Brodocko 48 single
Floyd Fields 30 married – 3 children
Hubert Fleming 32 divorced
Leonard Forbes 30 married
Sam French 23 single – colored
Joe Fry 32 married
Earl Gearheart 29 married
Mike Gimo 35 single
Roland Karns 27 single
R.B. Kimball 38 married – 6 children
Troy McCoy 28 married
George McCormick 23 married
Fred McCrosky 31 married – colored
Tuphon Podlaska 43 single
August Tusek – twin 36 single
Jack Tusek – twin 36 married – 3 children
James Wiley 34 married – 1 child
Gazel Vankovich 49 married – 6 children

Resources: They Died in the Darkness by Lacy A. Dillon, copyright 1976 in Ravencliff, West Virginia, and the Logan Banner microfilm.

I have discovered many typos of names of the victims when doing research on mine disaster stories. Sometimes, the errors are corrected in later issues of newspapers, but not always. Many times ages and family information are incorrect. Many of the victims were foreign-born with hard to spell names. Even on the death certificates of victims the information is not always correct. So, if you find a name misspelled or an age listed incorrectly please inform me it can be corrected. Dolores Riggs Davis.

Note: When I was putting the Dehue History Book together, I found two 1936 Macbeth disaster pictures, one from the 1937 Macbeth disaster, and one from the Havaco Mine disaster which is located near Welch in McDowell County. The pictures were taken by the now defunct Cleveland Press. Their paper covered all three mining disasters, and it was my good fortune they sold 10 percent of their pictures, and that I came across the man selling them at our local mall in Mentor, Ohio. Information taped to the back of the pictures helped me to identify them. Dolores Riggs Davis.

LOVE AND TRAGEDY

On April 16, 1906, Anna Torok sailed out of Harve, France on her way to New York City on the ship L A Bretagne. Anna had left Gyarmat, Hungary at age fourteen to work as a governess. The American family she worked for treated her as their own child, and taught her etiquette and how to speak English. Anna’s brother worked for them as a chauffeur and got her the job.

One day Anna was looking out her window and saw people rushing to witness a street fight. She joined the crowd, and right in the middle of the fight was handsome, Gazel Vankovich. It was her first glimpse of her husband-to-be. Gazel, also from Hungary, had arrived in New York City a year before Anna.

Anna Torok and Gazel Vankovich

Anna and Gazel were married in New York City on January 28, 1911. Gazel was twenty-three and Anna was nineteen. Gazel moved his wife and son, Steve to Logan County, West Virginia in 1913, and went to work in the mines. They had five other children: Eugene, Irene, Mary Ann, Edgar, and William.

Gazel was forty-nine years old when tragedy stuck, and he lost his life in the Macbeth Mine. He had moved his family to Macbeth in 1931, and had worked for the Macbeth Mine for seven years. His children were age twenty-five to twelve at the time of his death. He never wanted his sons to work in the mines. However, William, who was twelve when his father died did become a miner. Gazel never became a naturalized citizen. Anna took her oath on June 24, 1938.

Note: Vicki Lynn Vankovich Ferrell was shocked to find my story about her grandfather’s death on the Logan Homepage. She said her father, Eugene was in awe of the whole thing. Eugene worked at the Macbeth company store when his father was killed. At age 84, he is active and in good health. Vicki said her grandmother, Anna had a smile that lit up the room when she told the story of how she met Gazel.

The spelling on Anna and Gazel’s headstone reads Gazel. However, on Anna’s naturalization papers his name is spelled Geza. It is not known if his name was Americanized. Thanks to Vicki for sending me this beautiful wedding picture of her grandparents. Dolores Riggs Davis.

FLOYD FIELDS

Floyd Fields

Floyd Fields was a Church of God minister. He was the son of Elijah and Cindy Caldwell Fields. Floyd met his wife, Bertha Green at church. They were both from Perry County, Kentucky. Floyd loved to hunt and fish and was a little absent-minded. He once took his daughter Betty with him to the grocery store, and according to his family forgot her. He had bought Betty a bag of candy, and told her to sit on the store steps to wait for him. When he returned home without her, Bertha was quiet upset. In a panic, Floyd rushed back to the store. The store had closed for the lunch hour, but to his relief Betty was sitting on the steps as he had instructed her to do . . . patiently waiting for her daddy.

Bertha was 23 when Floyd was killed. They had three children, Betty age four (now deceased, Ruth age three, and Doris 15 months. Floyd loved to place Doris on a table top for her to sing and dance for his friends. Doris still loves to sing and has a beautiful voice.

Bertha Fields and Daughters visit Floyd’s Grave. The picture is dated May 30, 1937. Left to right: Ruth, Bertha holding Doris, & Betty.

Floyd was buried on March 14, behind a church at the Claypool Cemetery. The grave has been lost to the family. Harris Funeral Home was in charge of the arrangements, and the funeral was billed to state compensation and to Bertha.

After the funeral, Bertha and her daughters moved in with her brother, Frank Green, and she kept house for him to pay their way. Workman’s Compensation paid Bertha a total of forty-five dollars a month. She received thirty-dollars and five-dollars for each child until age fifteen. She later worked at the Logan General Hospital. Bertha said no man could ever compare to her husband, and she never remarried. She died September 18, 1996. Floyd’s brother, Sam still lives in Logan County.

Source of information: granddaughter, Beverly Mullins Hawkins, and daughter, Ruth Fields Hale.

JOE FRY’S OBITUARY

Joe Fry was born January 4, 1910, on Hewett Creek. He was the youngest son of Marshall and Adelene Nichols Fry. He deceased this life at the age of 27 years, two months and seven days, on March 11, 1937. Joe was married on March 21, 1936, to Miss Violet Ofszark at Madison, in a double wedding ceremony with Earl Gearhart and Lucille Watson. Earl also lost his life in the same mine explosion. Joe and his wife lived happily together. He leaves to mourn his loss a loving wife; his father, Marshall Fry; a sister, Mrs. Nessel Gore; two brothers, Johnie and Arthur Fry; a half sister, Evelyn, and two half brothers, Emil and Billy Fry, and a host of other relatives and friends. His mother and brother Elmer preceded him to the grave several years ago. Joe was a fine boy and a good husband. He was loved and respected by all his friends. He planned to become a Christian in the near future. His Christian wife prayed for him and feels her prayers are answered and that she will meet him over there.

Thanks to Sharon Roberts and her mother, Geraldine Frye for the above information. Joe Fry and John Frye were brothers. John was Sharon’s grandfather, and Joe who died in the explosion was her great-uncle. It remains a mystery to Sharon why the brothers did not spell their last names the same. Joe’s wife later became became an evangelist, and never remarried. Joe died ten days before his first wedding anniversary.

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5 Responses to A Gaping Black Mouth – Macbeth 1937

  1. Steve, I am glad the story I wrote is helping to reach out to some of your family. I hope you will hear from other family members. Dolores Riggs-Davis

  2. Liz Murphy says:

    I believe I first saw this site after the Sago collapse.

    My great-great grandparents are Gazel and Anna Vankovich. I remember seeing that wedding photograph for the first time after my grandmother died. Irene was my great-grandmother, Barbara my grandmother, Pamela my mother. My great-grandmother and grandmother died within a short time from one another… Mary Ann, my great-grandmother’s sister, died shortly thereafter.

    I would very much like the opportunity to get in contact with any of my family members in Logan County. I know this site does not publish personal email addresses, and I appreciate that. That said, mine is elizabethmurphy82@gmail.com.

    • Steve K. Vankovich says:

      Hi,
      Hi, good to get an email address from one of my relations. My father was Edgar Vankovich, so Gazel and Anna Vankovich was my grandfather and grandmother. My first name is Steve, and we have a son named Steve Vankovich, Jr. My wife’s name is Ann Marie, and we live in Bristol, VA. We were so happy to see your email address. We sure would love to hear from you so we could email each other about our relations. Hope to hear from you soon.

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