Being a coal miner’s daughter, the song “Dark As A Dungeon” always runs chills up my spine. It tells young men to listen to this song, and not to seek their fortune in a dreary coal mine. It goes on to say, that danger is double, pleasures are few, and that the rain never falls, or the sun never shines inside the mines. Merle Travis sings that he hopes when he is gone that the ages will roll while his body blackens and turns into coal. Then, he will look from the door of his heavenly home, and pity the miner who is diggin’ his bones. My dad, Rev. Emmett B. Riggs, Sr. often referred to the inside of a mine as the “bowels of the earth,” and that sounded so ominous it increased my fears for his safety.
I was born in the mining town of Dehue in Logan County, West Virginia, and delivered at home by Dr. Fred Brammer who was the company doctor. It was at Dehue where I learned about death in a dreary coal mine.
My first taste of death was at age twelve when our neighbor, Serafin Nieves died in a slate fall. He had worked for the Youngstown Mine Corporation at Dehue for 15 years when was killed at age 50 on Tuesday, August 2, 1949. He was the eighteenth mine fatality in Logan County that year.
Mr. Nieves wife, Sara was visiting relatives in Warren, Ohio, when the accident occurred. He was laid-out at home which was the custom at that time, and I went with my parents to pay our respects. When we arrived a huge crowd of people had already gathered. Sara kept sobbing that she had a premonition of her husband’s death, and had dreamed over and over about a large crowd of people in front of their house. . . . “Danger is double and pleasures are few.”
DEADLY GAS KILLS 18 AT ISLAND CREEK NO. 22
On Tuesday, March 8, 1960 the Holden Mine at Island Creek No. 22 caught fire in the coal seam, and it created a carbon monoxide gas which killed eighteen men by asphyxiation. The men were trapped shortly after entering the mine at seven in the morning. The last word from them came about 8:30 that morning shortly before the telephone lines burned. I worked for the Logan Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, and our office was flooded with calls as the word of the disaster spread.
Twenty men went into the Holden Mine on this snowy March morning, and not long after work a slate fall occurred in the tunnels between the men and the shaft bottom. Officials blamed the fire on a cable or trolley line which was suspected to have been knocked down near a wooden timber that arced until the wood caught fire. The coal then caught on fire causing a raging inferno to roar through the tunnels inside the mine. The men knew this, but were sealed off from the fire by the slate fall. Rescue workers poured water into the mine using as many as twelve different water-hose, but freezing temperatures soon froze the lines on the surface. Finally, when the fire was contained, teams of 40 men working around the clock slogged though knee-deep water in the smoke and steam hoping to rescue the men. Veteran rescue workers called it “hell’s fire.”
Ventilation expert, Willis Carter who was one of the trapped miners, volunteered to crawl through a narrow passageway to try an find a way out. A young miner, Kyle Blair agreed to follow him. The others decided to wait for fire fighters and the rescue team. Carter said Blair blacked out for about twenty-five minutes as they crawled toward the surface. After that, Carter’s repeated remarks of encouragement kept Blair moving with him through a circular route in old mine workings. When they finally reached safety, Blair said he remembered little of their four hour ordeal except that Willis kept talking. Blair said, “I just grabbed the right man.”
Carter was asked if there was panic among the men. He said, “No, I don’t think so, except for a time right at the first. I thought Donaldson was in some sort of shock. He wouldn’t even answer me when I told him the men could not get out through the Elk Creek Slope. He kept telling Josh Chafin, a section foreman, to take his men and head for the Elk Creek Slope.” Donaldson was a safety inspector who just happened to be with them when the fire broke out. Company officials hoped he could direct survival tactics by putting up brattices (canvas walls) to block off heat and fumes. Carter said he thought all of the men could have escaped if they had followed him.
As daylight came on Friday, the rescue teams were no closer to reaching the miners. Most of the family members and friends held vigil at their homes hoping for a miracle. Newspaper men became restless and dissatisfied with the information being handed to them by the officials. One reporter complained there was to much confusion in the reports from the rescue teams.
Roma Sargent’s older brother, Orville was one of the trapped miners. Roma was a cab driver in Dearborn, Michigan, and rushed to the scene as soon as he got word of the disaster. He said he had never worked a day in the mines in his life, and after this he said they couldn’t lower him into one. “I’d starve to death first,” he said. His father, Alvin B. Sargent of nearby Mud Fork had ten sons and a daughter, and was a retired coal miner. Roma said his sister lost her husband in a mining accident about six months before the Holden disaster.
On Tuesday at three o’clock in the afternoon, eight days after the fire began rescue workers came upon 13 bodies. All had died within hours after the accident of carbon monoxide gas. None of the bodies were burned, and the men appeared to have been relaxed when death made its silent approach. Two men were eating from their lunch buckets. One man was found in a kneeling position with his arms encircling a timber, and was apparently praying when he was over-come with the deadly gas. Freda Enyart Horvath, wife of Berti, believed this to be her husband, and wrote him a goodbye letter after she heard the news.
Josh Chafin, Jr. of Pine Creek was found still clutching the note he had written to his wife. The note was delivered to his wife twelve hours before the first body was brought to the surface. The note read: Mable, I love you more than you will ever know. Take care of the kids and raise them to serve the Lord.” It was signed, “Jr.” . . . the name he went by. Josh and his wife were members of the Central Baptist Church on Holden Road.
The bodies were wrapped in blankets and plastic bags, and carried to the base of a 485-foot elevator shaft. They were lined up neatly to await their return to the surface. A heavy wet snow fell covering the ground. The men were taken to the Harris Funeral Home which was chosen as a central station where families could claim the remains and make funeral arrangements. The last two miners to be recovered were Charles Adams and Louis Workman.
By Thursday afternoon all the bodies had been recovered. It had taken nine days. Seventy-two children were left fatherless and sixteen wives were made widows by the holocaust. I pity the miner a diggin’ my bones . . . deep in the mines that is as dark as a dungeon.
A LIST OF THE EIGHTEEN VICTIMS
|Charles Adams||46||wife and 7 children|
|Frank Ardis||63||wife and 4 children|
|Ernest Bevins||35||wife and 7 children|
|Okey Bryant||49||widower and 5 children|
|James Carter||30||wife and 6 children|
|Josh Chafin, Jr.||37||wife and 4 children|
|Roy Lee Dempsey||52||9 children|
|William Donaldson||53||wife and 1 child|
|Garfield Hensley||43||wife and 5 children|
|Berti Horvath||32||wife and 4 children|
|Flint Lock Jarrells||39||wife and 6 children|
|Albert Marcum, Jr.||34||wife and 5 children|
|Melvin Newsom||46||wife and 1 child|
|Isom Ooten||43||wife and 6 children|
|James V. Lundell||26||wife and 2 children|
|Orville Sargent||32||wife and 1 child|
|Carl White||39||wife and 3 children|
|Louis Workman||32||wife and 1 child|
According to John Stepp from Logan County, Kyle Blair who escaped death at the Holden 22 mine disaster, died tragically in another mining accident about 1974. He was a mine foreman on the tipple at a Boone County mine, and fell into a coal crusher.
Betty Sheppard Dulcie lived at Holden at the time of the disaster, and her husband, Matt helped bring out the first four bodies. One of them he brought out was James Carter, brother of Willis who escaped death by crawling to safety through a tunnel. She said, James was to big to fit into the tunnel, and that he was known by the way he always squatted down when he rested.
A MESSAGE TO BERTI
Dear Beloved Husband and Father,
Honey, I am thinking of you this morning. I know you don’t know this, but while you are resting, I am thinking of you at 12:25 a.m. I can’t sleep. You are on my mind and I can’t seem to get you off my mind.
I love you very much and always will. I was talking to Carl Dixon at the funeral home and he said that it seemed to him that you had been praying. So, when I read it in the paper I just knew it was you. So, I know you are in Heaven. I am satisfied now.
The kids and I are going to miss you very much. I still have your picture. I love it very much and always will. Diana and Garry said we have no Daddy now, but we will always have your memory.
If only you knew how nice you were put away you would be so happy. The only thing I didn’t like was that I couldn’t see you or bring you home for the last time. But it was impossible.
I am going to make me a scrapbook of everything I have involving your death. If Rev. Cosby and all my good friends hadn’t stood by me, bless their hearts, I don’t know what I would have done. I wish to thank every one who helped to comfort me. So don’t worry about the children. They will be brought up the same way you wanted them to be. I will do my best.
Diana and Garry tell you good night every night. I have your picture on the back of my bed so I can see it every night and kiss you good night. That is all I have of you now, but I’ll think of you every minute. I love you. We were very happy together. I am going back to bed now and try to rest some . . . like you are.
As the Lord sayeth, He giveth, and the Lord also taketh. So God be with me and the children to be strong and keep on living without you. I love you, God, and will try to change my way of living when you reach my heart.
Good Night Berti
Your wife and four children who love you
This touching letter was written by Berti Horvath’s wife, Freda. Florence Carter May’s mother clipped a copy of the letter from the Logan Banner, and tucked it away in her Bible. Florence found it when she was a young girl, and often wondered why her mother saved it. When she read my story about the Holden disaster she understood, and sent a copy to me.
* Note: Resources used to write this story: They Died In The Darkness by Lacy A. Dillon, copyright 1976 in Ravencliff, West Virginia. The Logan Banner.
Song: Dark As A Dungeon was recorded by Country singer, Merle Travis. The copyright is 1947 by Elvis Presley Music, Inc., Gladys Music, Inc., Hill and Range Songs, Inc., and Noma Music, Inc.
*Dolores Riggs Davis is author of The Dehue History Book 1916-1994, and A Wife’s Vietnam published in 1996.