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Kermit Mine Disaster

Williamson Daily News
January 19, 1951


Kermit Mine Explosion Takes Lives Of 11; Two More Injured, One Critically, In Blast

About 25 Men Were In Burning Springs Works When Tragedy Struck

Gas Pocket Blamed For Catastrophe

Families “Fear Worst;” Superintendent Leads Workers In Rescue Try

By TOM WELLMAN
Daily News Staff Writer

A local gas explosion in the mine of the Burning Springs Collieries Company at Kermit yesterday afternoon snuffed out the lives of 11 miners, and injured two others, one critically.

The exact time of the terrific blast that was sett off accidentally is not certain, but is believed to have occurred around 1 p. m. Mine officials said there was “so much confusion that they did not note the time nor did they know who sounded the alarm.”

Approximately 25 men were in the workings on two sections when the blast occurred. The men killed and injured were in No. 9 hallway, about 4,000 feet from the drift mouth. Men working on the other section left the mine uninjured after the explosion.

T. L. Lambert, superintendent of the mine, accompanied a group of rescue workers inside the blast-torn area, and remained with them until all of the bodies had been recovered.

Shortly after Lambert went inside, a call was sent out for more help and brottice material. The area at that time was reported “hot” and with but little ventilation.

The first bodies were recovered about 3 o’clock but it was two hours later before all had been located. Lambert said all of the 11 men apparently died instantly.

The men injured were Joe Hinkle, 34, of Inez, a motorman, and William Bowens, 35, of Stepptown. Bowens is in a critical condition and unable to make a statement. Hinkle was conscious when brought outside but he told a Daily News reporter he didn’t know what happened. “The first thing I knew they were carrying me out.”

Most of Bowens’ clothing was burned from his body. He suffered burns, a brain concussion, possible skull fracture and a back injury. He, along with Hinkle, were brought to Williamson Memorial Hospital. Bowens today was reported “to be holding his own.” He spent a fairly comfortable night, attendants said. Hinkle was expected to be able to go home today.

The explosion hit three fam[i]lies hard and while rescue operations were being carried out relatives stood around the drift mouth apparently resigned to the fact that “any news would be bad news.”

Rescue operators inside the torn area were not optimistic from the beginning. Their fears were confirmed when the first three men they reached were found dead. A half hour later, eight had been reported dead via the mine telephone from the inside to the drift-mouth office, and at 5 o’clock all bodies had been reported found.

The first four bodies were removed at about 6 o’clock, and by 7:30 all had been brought to the outside. Rescue workers wrapped them in brattice cloth before bringing out their ghastly cargo.

Around the mouth of the hollow several hundred feet away, and around the drift-mouth, hundreds of silent watchers stood or slumped waiting news from the men inside. Not until after all the bodies were brought outside did the crowd begin dispersing. Among the spectators were mothers and fathers, wives, sisters, brothers and children of the doomed men.

The alarm of the explosion brought mining men, rescue workers, and state and federal officials from a wide area. Soon on the scene was Arch J. Alexander, state mine chief, together with his inspectors including Young Lawson, inspector at large. Federal men also were on the scene. Among these were Charles Perry, an inspector in the district. Also at the scene was William Good, mining engineer for the company, and his men who were familiar with the workings and aided the rescuers.

Alexander said his men inspected the mine early this week and “we gave it a clean bill of health. Federal men made an inspection last week, and approved the mine, it was said.

Alexander said the mine would be closed until a complete investigation is made. He set this probe for Monday and Tuesday.

Coroner Tabor Ball conducted an inquest after the last body had been removed, and a jury with William (Bill) Dillon as foreman reported a verdict of accidential [sic] “death due to the explosion of a gas pocket.”

Ball heard witnesses who said that the men apparently had drilled into what is known as a mine “fault” and that the accident was due to “no laxity on the part of mine inspectors, company officials or workers.”

Lambert, the mine superintendent, said none of the men was mangled. The coroner reported that death was apparently due to the force of the blast. Burns alone would not have caused instant death, it was said.

Bryant Spaulding, a motorman, employed on the other section, was about 300 feet from the scene of the blasted area. He said the blast was “terrific”. It partly deafened him. He brought his motor outside, and tried to find out what had happened.

Among the victims were Tom Moore and his son, Tom, Jr. Charlie Sparks was gone along with his son, Proctor. And the two Dalton brothers, Conrad and Delbert, were killed with their brother-in-law, Walter Johnson. The other victims were Sherman Fields, Charlie Porter, Lashley Mounts, mine electrician, and John Chafin, the section boss.

The explosion yesterday was the first in the Williamson area in several years. The most recent was at the Pond Creek Collieries Dec. 13, 1948. Carl Kidwell, 37, of goody [sic], Ky., was killed and four other workers were injured. A “local” gas explosion was blamed.

Mines Chief Alexander said it was the first major mine tragedy in West Virginia since the Bartley catastrophe in McDowell County several years ago.


Blast Notes

Bob Johnson of East Kermit was among the spectators, happy to be alive but grieved because his fellow workers had been killed. Bob normally would have been working on the same section yesterday but was off due to the death of a sister. He is a brother of Dave Johnson, deputy sheriff, who helped handle the crowd around the drift mouth.

State and federal mine officials clamped down a rigid censorship as soon as they arrived. For three hours they kept the crowd back at the mouth of the hollow on the main highway of U. S. Route 52. Later the crowd overran the guards and swarmed around the mine opening. An area there was roped off and only rescue workers, mine officials, doctors, ambulance workers and drivers, and newspaper photographers and reporters were allowed inside the roped off area.

The Inez-Warfield high school basketball game scheduled for tonight at Inez has been postponed until next Thursday night due to the tragedy.

The Huntington Herald Dispatch rushed two photographers to the scene – W. T. Chambers and Maurice Caplan. Their photos were serviced to the Associated Press. The Associated Press, United, the International News Service, and the Chicago Tribune were among the services and newspapers obtaining special coverage on the explosion.

The rush of spectators and others to the scene created a traffic jam on U. S. Route 52. Among the officers helping handle the traffic and crowds were Deputy Sheriff Dave Johnson, Constables Dover McCoy and Baisden and Oce Meade, Delbarton town policeman.

Rescue teams from Howard Collieries, Eastern Coal Company, Pond Creek Colliery, Winco Block Coal Company were among those who rushed to the scene bringing their life saving equipment. Dr. E. T. Drake of Williamson, and Dr. E. P. Stepp of Kermit were among the physicians at the scene ready to render first aid.

The Daily News owes a vote of thanks to John Estep, Kermit cab operator. After news of the blast was sounded yesterday afternoon, the Daily News tried desperately from several sources to find out what had happened. Estep was called and he got in his cab and went to the mouth of Burning Creek and learned briefly that one man had been brought out injured and that nine or more other were trapped. He rushed back to his cab stand and called the Daily News office with these facts. Estep was at the mine entrance getting more information for the Daily News when a staff man arrived.

No less than eight or nine ambulances rushed to the mine from the Allen Funeral Home and the M. T. Ball Funeral Home in Williamson and the Richmond-Calliham Funeral Home in Inez, Ky.

The Burning Springs mine is located immediately above the town of Kermit, and several hundred yards up the hollow from U. S. Route 52. It normally employes about 75 men both inside and outside.


The Dead

Tom Moore, Sr., 48, driller, of Marrowbone Creek.

Tom Moore, Jr., 23, shuttle buggy operator, of Marrowbone Creek.

Charley Sparks, 46, Job loading machine helper, of Kermit.

Proctor Sparks, 26, machine man, of Kermit, son of Charley Sparks.

John Chafin, 31, Stepptown, section boss.

Charley Porter, 57, timberman, of Missouri Branch.

Lashley Mounts, 33, electrician, of Beauty, Ky.

Delbert Dalton, 27, shuttle buggy operator, of Inez.

Conrad Dalton, 48, shooter, of Inez, brother of Delbert.

Walter Johnson, 44, machine helper, of near Inez.

Sherman Fields, 34, joy machine operator, of Beauty.

The Injured

William Bowens, 35, Stepptown, boom operator, suffered burns, brain concussion, back injury and possible skull fracture. Condition critical.

Joseph Hinkle, 34, Inez, motorman, burns and cuts on face, shock. Condition not critical.


Disasters

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