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Bishop Mine Disaster

Charleston Gazette
February 5, 1957


37 Men Killed in Explosion At Mine Along State Border

Probers Believe Gas Blast Cause

BISHOP, Va., Feb. 4 – (AP) – Thirty-seven miners perished today in a rumbling gas explosion deep in the giant Bishop coal mine that burrows under the mountains of the Virginia-West Virginia line.

It was the nation’s worst mine disaster since 119 died in a blast at West Frankfort, Ill., Dec. 21, 1951.

There was no immediate official word on what touched off the blast that sent acrid, dust-laden fumes whistling through the mine 337-feet below the surface. A fire-boss had reported the area free of hazard prior to the time the midnight shift went to work. Time of the explosion was set at 1:55 a.m.

At a distance downslope from the disaster site the explosion seemed almost gentle. Charles Vaughan, Bluefield, Va., a survivor, said he heard it “but it wasn’t loud at all.”

One of Vaughan’s companions said it was more like “a big puff of wind.”

It appeared to many of the rescue workers that the lives of the 37 were snuffed out by the resulting lack of oxygen rather than the force of the blast.

About 184 men were under ground at the time but the 37 victims apparently were the only ones in the immediate blast area. First intimation something was wrong down in the cavernous two million-ton-a-year producer of the Pocahontas Fuel Co. came in a phone call to the tipple.

Rufus Trail, a mine motorman who was outside after carrying two hauls of men to the diggings, said a miner below reported things didn’t look right – there was a heavy accumulation of dust. The call was believed to have come some distance from the explosion area.

The elevator on the Virginia side was jammed at the top and miners began to file out on the West Virginia side from a mountain tunnel which is a normal coal exit.

At 5:50 p.m., 12 mine cars rolled slowly from the drift entrance across the West Virginia line, carrying the bodies of the victims. Rescue workers, their faces and clothing grimy, rode on the cars, miners lamps on the hats casting a weird glow in the dusk. Flashbulbs from photographers’ cameras flared from all sides.

The bodies were unloaded from the cars and 20 minutes later all were laid in a mine company building where physicians began the grim task of establishing positive identification and making preliminary examinations.

Among the rescue workers were some men who had worked on the shift and had escaped.

A rescue worker said the first bodies were found at 3 a. m. and the last at 5 p. m. The last bodies were discovered buried under piles of slate brought down by the explosion.

The worker said there was no evidence any of the doomed men had attempted to build a barricade. No notes were found.

William A. Fullarton, special assistant to the president of Pocahontas Fuel, said it was believed an accumulation of gas in the mine had caused the explosion. What touched off the gas, he said, was unknown but could have been any one of a number of things.

The victims were the only ones of the shift working in the vicinity of the blast.

Relatives and friends gathered at mine entrances on both sides of the line – an area hit less than a week ago by disastrous floods. They held to a waning hope that the trapped men somehow had managed to throw up a barricade against the smoke and fumes. And the Bishop community of 900 began its vigil while rescue teams moved into the mine from the West Virginia side 2 ˝ miles away.

The last word officials of the company received from below came by phone from Raymond Owensby. He said his section was all right if the smoke and fumes would abate. But Owensby was among the trapped men and perished in a spot described as “a five-minute walk” from the foot of the elevator shaft.

Finally masked rescue groups reached the area. They first reported finding three or four bodies, then nine.

At 9:30 A. M., while the crowds pressed near the entrances during a chill, drizzling rain, the company and the West Virginia Mines Dept. issued a joint statement that forecast the dismal climax.

“Less than 40 of the men were involved in the explosion, and of this number there are no survivors,” said the statement.

Virginia and West Virginia mine safety officials were joined by U. S. Director of Mines Marling J. Ankehy and an assistant in their check on the possible cause of the worst life loss in U.S. mining in the past five years.

The U. S. Bureau of Mines classifies a major mine disaster as one in which five or more men are killed. The last major mine disaster in the nation was one at the Jamison Coal and Coke Co., near Farmington, W. Va., in which 16 died, Nov. 13, 1954.

Bishop Mine is one of the major operations of Pocahontas. It’s catacombs underlie the Virginia-West Virginia border for a length of about five miles. It has been in operation since 1927 and in the first nine months of 1956 produced 1,580,223 tons of bituminous coal. In this period it reported two fatal and 103 nonfatal accidents.

The two mine entrances – the shaft entrance at Horsepen, Va., and the drift entrance across the West Virginia line – are about three miles apart on the surface.

Miners generally enter the mine by the shaft on the Virginia side while the coal is brought out the drift entrance. The tipple is on the West Virginia side. Miners said it takes about 45 minutes to reach the work areas from the drift entrance, compared to only 15 minutes from the shaft entrance.

Pocahontas announced, meanwhile, that both its insurance company and the United Mine Workers had advised it they were ready to pay immediately the survival and funeral benefits to the families.

There will be no cleanup of the slate fall until after the investigation is completed. Mine workers indicated the fall was slight.

Gov. Cecil H. Underwood of West Virginia asked the company to supply him with a list of the names, ages and hometowns of the victims. The governor’s office did not say what use would be made of the list.


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