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|Friday, May 26, 2000
Mine explosion victims remembered
By Melissa Clement
CUMNOCK -- Margaret Wicker was 7 years old in 1925 when the worst industrial disaster in North Carolina occurred a quarter of a mile from her home.
She remembers the morning well. Her mother and a group of women were chopping cotton on the family farm while she and a friend played in a ditch.
‘‘All at once we heard a loud boom and black and yellow smoke began rolling into the sky,” she said. “It became dark and black like night. I was just scared to death. The women in the field began to scream. They knew what had happened.’’
What had happened was an explosion deep in the Carolina Coal Co. mine where their husbands worked.
The mine was in the tiny village of Coal Glen on the Chatham County side of Deep River, seven miles from Sanford. On May 27, 1925, a Wednesday morning, 53 miners, with lamps gleaming on their heads, entered the mine for another day of digging and loading coal to be carried to the surface by mule-drawn cars.
As they filed below ground a great ventilating fan hummed, assuring a supply of fresh air below. Two thousand feet above the lowest level lay a field of cotton and the small mine-owned houses where the wives and mothers of the miners were going about their daily chores. The first blast occurred about 9:30 a.m. followed by a second and a third explosion about 15 minutes apart.
‘‘Daddy didn’t work in the mine but he worked with them cutting timber and crossties to be used in the mine,” Wicker said. “In a few minutes after the explosion he came home to get sweet milk from my mother’s cows. It was for two of the men who had been blown up the shaft but were not killed.’’
When the first blast came they made their way through the smoke-filled air to the second corridor where they found six men still alive but dazed and bruised. They dragged them into the main shaft before the second blast came some distance off. Mine supervisor Howard Butler was making his way to the top when the third blast knocked him to the ground. He later told reporters it sounded like a tornado. He crawled to safety but later developed pneumonia and was taken to a hospital in Sanford. Richardson also survived. No one noted if the two men drank the milk, which was thought to clear the lungs of miners’ marsh gas, or methane.
Rescue efforts started immediately. Miners from the Cumnock Coal Mine three miles away in Lee County came to help. They needed to penetrate the debris that sealed the miners inside.
No one knew how many miners were trapped. The miners did not check in on arrival; they just checked out at the close of their work shift. An early estimate, based on a count of head lamps, was that 71 were missing.
A few miners unknowingly saved their lives by skipping work that day.
Wicker remembers that one of the women farm workers thought she had lost her husband until he appeared at home. He had missed work to chase a cow that had strayed from the family farm. Another miner had stayed out after a bout with Prohibition-era moonshine the night before. Still another arrived a few minutes late and was sent home.
Vibrations from the explosion could be heard and felt a mile away and family members quickly gathered at the mine entrance. Poisonous yellow gas was still billowing from the mine, making rescue impossible until hours later. Newspaper reports describe the crowd as quiet and constrained as relatives and neighbors waited through the night.
When the news was flashed to Gov. Angus McLean he alerted Fort Bragg. Two regiments, the 5th Field Artillery and the 17th Field Artillery, left immediately for the mine with food, tents and supplies. Their job was to keep order, but they found no difficulty in keeping the area safe and cleared. A Fort Bragg medical detachment soon followed with physicians, enlisted men and nurses.
The governor sent Highway Commissioner Frank Page and state engineers to the scene while mining experts from Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Ala., boarded special trains to North Carolina.
The disaster became headline news across the country and reporters rushed to the scene along with an estimated 5,000 people who clogged traffic on the narrow roads. Hot dog stands sprang up and two bootleggers were arrested for plying their trade.
By the second day hope began to fade for the victims and their grief-stricken families. When the battered and burned bodies began to come up they were laid on cots in Army tents for identification. By the third day the bodies had decomposed and were ordered to be buried immediately.
Many of the miners were from the coal fiends of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alabama, and had been lured to the state by higher wages.
Their bodies were sent to Sanford funeral homes before being shipped by train to their homes. Of the 53 victims, 27 were white and 26 were black. There had been 110 miners employed for the two shifts of work.
The six miners who had been brought part way out by Butler and Richardson apparently died in one of the other two blasts. When rescuers reached brothers George and Shubert Anderson they were entwined in each other’s arms, indicating that they may have suffocated rather than died in the blasts.
Almost everyone in the mining village lost family members. Half of the male population was gone, leaving 79 children orphaned and 38 women widowed. In one family two brothers, including a 16-year-old who had finished school two weeks earlier, were killed. Butler Wright, from Bladen County, lost his three sons and a brother in the catastrophe. He was quoted as saying, ‘‘Surely the Lord wouldn’t take my whole family.’’ M.B. Hudson lost two sons, ages 27 and 17, and his son-in-law.
The last body was brought up on Saturday night. The rescue operation was over.
It hadn’t taken relief outfits long to come to the aid of the victims. Three hours after the explosion, the American Legion Auxiliary from Sanford was in action with the help of Evelyn Nimocks of Fayetteville. The auxiliary provided food and aided the victims’ families and rescue workers.
The American Red Cross and other organizations soon followed. When it was discovered that one elderly man did not have a suit to wear to the funeral of his two sons, Fayetteville businesses began to donate clothing. Cumberland Legion Post No. 2 sent collections of cigarettes, matches, chewing gum and 1,000 cigars. Just 24 hours after the disaster, $1,200 had been donated to the families of the victims and the governor was asking for more. The Red Cross gave $5,000 to be used as trust funds for widows and children.
The cause of the explosion was at first a mystery. Later, investigators decided the cause was a defective dynamite blast that was intended to uncover more coal to be mined. The blast wrecked the underground ventilation system and sealed off parts of the mine with slate and debris.
Family members were said to have been compensated for the loss of the men and no lawsuits were filed against the company. The Carolina Coal Co. went bankrupt in 1930. It was reopened in 1947 as the Raleigh Mining Corp. After two more deaths, one by asphyxiation and the other by electric shock, the mine was finally closed in 1952.
But the 1925 disaster had already destroyed the tiny town that had been hailed as a future Birmingham.The Glen Coal accident, along with other Deep River coal bed disasters, hastened the demise of the state’s coal-mining industry.
A chicken-processing plant now overshadows the sealed entrance to the Carolina Coal Co. mine.