Layland Mine Disaster

Fayette Tribune
March 11 1915

As from the Tomb

Forty Seven Survivors of Layland Walk From The Mine

Behind Brattice Four Days

Had Water But Many Were Forced to Chew Shoe Tops To Satisfy Terrible Pangs of Hunger.

Total Dead Is Estimated at 125; Survivors 53.

Reversal of Fan Friday Night permitted Inprisoned [sic] Miners Overlooked by Rescue Workers to Escape - Derange, Hero of Eccles, And John Whalen, the Real Life Savers - Bodies Recovered Sunday From Which Life Had Been Extinct But a Few Hours - Less Than a Dozen Bodies Unrecovered - Shot From The Solid Believed To Have Been Cause Of the Explosion.

As from the tomb 47 miners came out of Layland mine alive Saturday morning. For four days and nights they had been behind a brattice in a side entry, one mile under ground waiting for air to reach them that would permit of their escape. Their prayers were answered when the big fan at the drift mouth was revered Friday night and the good air began to whistle past their prison.

The appearance of the entombed miners walking out of the mine was a greater surprise than the news of the explosion. They had been mourned as dead and coffins and new made graves were in readiness for every one of them. None of those engaged in the rescue work believed there was a living being could survive the deadly gases that had filled the mine for a hundred hours.

The real rescuerer [sic] of the 47 was the man who thought to reverse the movement of the fan. Credit for this act is generally accorded John Laing, former chief of the state mining department. Had the fan been reversed two or three days sooner it is the opinion of many that other lives would have been saved.

Up to Wednesday noon the bodies of 112 dead have been recovered. Every part of the mine has been explored and the only bodies remaining in there are hidden under slate fall. There may be a dozen so buried. The most reasonable estimate of the loss of life is near 125. About 180 were in the mine when the explosion occurred and the total of those who came out alive is 53.

Every part of the mine had been explored by Sunday night and there is no possibility of any more of the victims remaining alive.

Very few of the bodies recovered were badly mutilated. Suffocation and after damp caused the death of nearly all of them. There are indications that many of the men lived quite awhile after the explosion. It is reported on good authority that the body of one victim recovered five days after the explosion was hardly cold and it was the opinion of the doctors that life had been extinct only a few hours.

The cause of the explosion has not been definitely ascertained. In a room mid-way of the mine was found a great pile of coal which has been shot off the solid. This shot may have been the source of the explosion. Gas and dust both contributed to the disaster. The mining experts are withholding their opinions as to the origin of the explosion.

The coroner's inquest will be conducted by Mayor Hastings of Montgomery. The following jury has been empaneled: J. E. Lowe, O. D. Aimch, John Higginbotham, Arthur Absalom, Allen Harvey and Dr. Lewis. No evidence has been taken yet and the formal investigation will not begin until the later part of the week by which time all the bodies will have been removed from the debris of the mine.

The relief work under direction of those in charge of the U. S. mine rescue car was continued day and night until Monday when there was a suspension of the work. From 60 to 70 experienced miners were in the mine exploring continually. There was much excitement Thursday night when the chain on the ventilating fan broke and the fan was stopped for half an hour. The rescue parties made haste to get out of the mine.

The helmeted crew worked in advance of the main body of rescuerers [sic]. They were able to penetrate the most gaseous portions of mine and detect all danger. A fall of slate in the tnry at one place caused the water to be damed [sic] up some three feet deep.

The damage to the mine is not very great and it is expected to be in shape to resume operations again within a couple of weeks.

It was about 9 o'clock Saturday morning, 96 hours after the explosion, that the rescue parties were startled by the appearance of five foreigners running down the entry. The government helmeted man was the first to behold the strange sight of men coming toward him out of the darkness. The had cloths over their faces and were beating the air in front of them with bucket lids. The helmeted man thought they were spooks and throwing off his harness ran for his very life. So upset was he from the sight that he was never seen in the mine again.

All were startled by the appearance of the first group of five to come out of the mine alive and still more surprised when told that there were 42 more live men coming behind them. The rescue workers hastened to meet them. All were coming slowly together, the weaker being supported by the stronger of the survivors. Only one man was carried out, "Dad" Whalen, aged 72, who was weak from hunger. Of course there were some wild and joyous scenes about the mine mouth. The men were taken in charge by the doctors and after a few hours treatment allowed to go to their homes.

The surviving miners were at work in the 9th and 10th entries about a mile and a half from the mine mouth when they felt the explosion. They were uninjured by the shock. Knowing the danger of attempting to force their way out Jas. Whalen, Wm. Derange and others of the more experienced men forced all hands to retreat to the 10th entry where they barricaded and bratticed themselves in a space over 200 feet long where the air was good and plentiful. A stream of water was found and the greatest suffering was occasioned by hunger. Some of the men chewed their shoe tops and bark from the mine timbers. Their dinner pails had been left in the main entry.

The mental anguish of the entombed almost caused many of them to become insane. Constant watch kept about the brattice to detect a change of air or hear some sound of rescue party. A note was shoved out in the entry telling of the location of the imprisoned miners. Rescue parties were along the main entry beyond them a number of times but never discovered them.

Credit for saving the lives of these 47 men is due, mostly to Wm. Derange and John Whalen, both young men. Derange was the hero of the Eccles disaster having saved half a dozen lives in No. 6 shaft by bratticing off a room. He had gone to work in Layland mine for the first time on the morning of the explosion.

Of the 47 men to come out alive about 15 of them were native Americans. Charley and Quincy, Caldwell, John Fitzpatrick and his son Lester, Bal Clendenin, Howard Huggard, Hugh McMillan, Thos. Whalen and son John, and G. H. Hensen, were among the survivors. The graves for Fitzpatrick and his son had been dug beside those of his brother and son whose bodies had been recovered and buried. Two bodies had been buried as those of survivors and it was necessary to open the graves and make further identification. Only one woman, the wife of one of the survivors, was not surprised when her husband came out with the survivors. She had refused to believe him dead and would not heed the advice of friends to prepare for his funeral. Her intuition proved true.

Feverish haste was exercised by those engaged in the rescue work following the appearance of the 47 survivors. All lateral branches of the mine where search had not been made were thoroughly explored. The body of Dennis Hurley, a pumper at a sub station in No. 3, taken out Monday, indicated that he had not been dead many hours. It is also reported that a watch on Son Abraham's body recovered Monday was running with the correct time.

Every attention possible has been given by the management to the needs of the bereaved families and nothing left undone that it was possible to do to mitigate their heavy sorrow.

On the bodies of several of the foreigners were found considerable sums of money. The money was usually carried in a leather garter. Several had over a hundred dollars in gold thus secreted and one had over $300. One Italian supposed to have $1500 was found to have nothing on his person. It is believed to have been hidden away by him and in all probability will never by found.

The identification of the bodies was not so difficult as anticipated. They only [illegible] of the bodies being those of foreigner members of the Catholic church, were taken to Hinton for burial in the Catholic cemetery. Less than a dozen bodies were unclaimed by friends or relatives and buried to the Layland burying ground. The list of the dead published herewith is not complete as to the names of a number of foreigners but includes all the known native Americans who perished in this worst mining disaster of the county. The list of survivors is officially correct and complete.

McMillian's Farewell Message.

After being confined in the 10th left entry for more than 24 hours, Hugh McMillian, one of the 47 to be rescued alive 4 days after the explosion, scribbled the following farewell message to his loved ones Wednesday morning amid the gloom of what he felt to be his approaching death:

"In case we don't get out of our prison, I am writing a few lines to our loving dear ones. Everyone from the main heading and all the entries below ten and above twelve from the ninth are here. John Whalen and father are here, safe, all hoping that the rescuers will reach us in time and all praying to our Saviour that such will happen, trusting to God that the air will last until they reach us. I am writing to my wife Mary, to bring up the kiddies loving their Savior as I am now. How our sins creep up in our faces in a time like this. Love to all."
"Hugh McMillan."

Checking Up the Missing

The first systematic effort to ascertain just who was in mine was undertaken by Capt S. L. Walker, of the Charleston office of the workmen's compensation fund department. Supt. Bertolett had denied newspaper reporters access to the pay roll or weigh check sheets. Capt. Walker by exercising the authority of his office obtained the names of all employes on the pay rolls of the company. He then made a systematic house to house canvas and in a few hours had a fairly accurate list of the missing. Capt. Walker's duties require that he make up a list of all widows, or orphans and dependants who may share in the relief to be extended under the compensation law. It will require several weeks to complete such a list. Dependants of those who were in the mine and whose names do not appear on the company pay roll will not share in the relief extended by the state.

Hero Medal To "Big Jack."

The hero of the disaster is "Big Jack." He saved the life of a fellow miner and is entitled to a Carnegie hero medal. He will get it too as his act is being fully reported to those who dispense the rewards of the hero fund. "Big Jack" deserves his name. He is 6 feet 4 inches and a giant every way physical. He and his buddy were working in one of the left entries about half a mile from the mouth of mine. They heard the report but there was nothing else to indicate that a terrible explosion had occurred. Big Jack, fearing his buddy would collapse if he knew what had happened, tried to persuade him that it was only a big shot. However they soon started to make their way out in the main entry their lights were extinguished and fearing to relight them they groped their way over slate falls toward the outside. They had not gone far before "Big Jack" stumbled upon the body of Benny McDaniel lying senseless. Jack shouldered him and carried him a quarter of a mile to the mine mouth. McDaniel is not a small man and the burden of 160 pounds on Jack's back as he climbed over the slate falls held him back several minutes. McDaniel soon revived when outside the mine. He would have been suffocated except for the heroic effort of the big Polander.

Freaks of Explosive Power.

The wildest canets of lightning were duplicated by the mysterious force of the explosion. In the stone motor barn every window frame was blown out clean. Three dinner buckets hung on nails in this building side by side. Two of them were torn all to pieces but the third one remained on the nail undisturbed without a dent in it. In the path of the blast that came from the mine, near where Copper was wrapped about a post, was a light chicken coop which was not even overturned. Windows were broken in a promiscous [sic] manner. Many houses near the mine escaped entirely while others all over the little town had windows broken. Inside the mine many of the brattices were not damaged in the least while others near by were completely demolished. No damage was done the fans and the air course remained remarkably free from all obstructions.

Should Change Its Name.

Layland. The name henceforth will be associated with unpleasant memories Perhaps the name of the town will be changed again, as was done in the case of Stuart and Parral. When Col. Joe Beury opened up the operation he called the place Gentry. About two years ago for some unknown reason the company had the name of the postoffice changed to Layland. Perhaps it would be well now to go back to the original Gentry. Skyland or Cloudland would be very appropriate, if part of the old name is to be retained, as the town is on top of the mountain at an elevation of about 2500 feet. It is said to be the highest elevation at which the Fire Creek seam is mined in the state.

Friday's Burial Parties.

Nine foreigners were taken to Hinton for burial Friday, services being conducted at St. Patrick's church. Others were taken to Hinton for burial Saturday.

The remains of Abner Cooper, colored porter, were taken to his home at Clifton Forge.

There were nine funerals at Springdale Friday among those buried being Dennis Hurley, John Farry, Martin Lynch and five members of the Fitzpatrick family.

The following nine were buried at Scarbro: A. C. Leonard, John Thomas and Wm. Branden, Wm. Henry Brayant, Boland Herbert, Burrett James, John Jos. Blaker, Burdiers Henry and John D. Billmyer

Bertolett a Strict Censor.

Supt. Bertolett gave orders to all the boarding houses to reserve all food and shelter for those actually engaged in the rescue work. Those who came upon the scene through no motive but curiosity were given a most unwelcome reception every way they turned. Newspaper reporters were shown no favors and all sources of information controlled by Supt. Bertolett were closed to them. No photographs were allowed to be taken about the mine. A moving picture outfit was made to move off the job Wednesday. A Thurmond photographer who took some snap shots Tuesday was induced to suppress them.

Closer Daily Inspection.

The absence of gas and the general recognized safety of the Layland mines were such that the mining department did not think the services of are bosses necessary. The miners were permitted to go to work every morning without any examination being made of the conditions inside. In the future the mines of this company will be inspected every morning before the men are allowed to enter. An order from the mining department is being considered requiring all mines to have fire bosses or inspectors who shall visit all portions of the mine every morning before the miners go to work. An experienced inspector might have discovered the danger lurking in No. 3 early Tuesday morning and by his warning the lives of many might have been spared.

State Will Pay Defendants. [sic]

Widows of the victims of the disaster will received $20 a month and children under 15 years of age $5 a month from the state workmen's compensation fund. It cannot be estimated yet with any degree of accuracy what the disaster will cost the state. It will certainly be more than $100,000. The fund withstood the heavy demands occasioned by the Eccles disaster and has been in good shape. The rate originally fixed did not contemplate such a drain, as occasioned by the many recent disasters and it is quite probable that a sharp advance in rates will be necessary. A bill is now pending in the legislature to compel subscribers to the fund to pay the $65,000 a year administrative expenses.

A Shallow Drift Mine

The general impression that Layland mines are shaft mines is erronious [sic]. The only shaft mines in the county are those of the New River Co. on White Oak. The Layland drifts have less than 25 feet of earth above them in many places and are the shallowest drift mines in the county. Surface water seeps through the roof in all parts of the mine and this action of the water in loosening the slate was considered the only real dangerous condition in the workings, timbering the mine heavily at point.

Medals For Everybody

Washington, March 6 - Secretary Lane highly commended today the part played by employees of the federal bureau of mines in the rescue of 47 miners from the Layland coal mine where they had been entombed four days.

"Out of the gloom of such a catastrophe," said the Secretary, "the saving of the men comes almost as a Benediction. I am proud of the brave fellows from the bureau of mines who have been working heroically for several days to bring about this consumation. I am equally proud of their associates who had been trained in modern rescue methods by our men."

Secretary Lane said he had been informed that the American mine safety association had already started a movement to award to each rescuer a gold medal.

One of Three Worst In the State

While it now seems probably that the Layland disaster did not result in such a heavy toll of death as the Eccles explosion it is by far the worst ever known in this county and one of three worst ever occurring in the state. The Monongah explosion of December 6, 1907, resulted in 300 dead. At Ennis, December 30, 1908, there were 100 dead. The Eccles list number 181.

In the Eccles disaster, April 28, 1914, every miner in No. 5 shaft was killed and 8 in No. 6 shaft from which 67 were rescued.

Other coal mine disasters in the U. S. in which the loss of life has exceeded 100 were as follows:

Birmingham, Ala., May 5, 1910 ............175
Briceville, Tenn., Dec. 9, 1911...............100
Cherry, Ill, Nov. 13, 1909.......................280
Cheswick, Pa., Jan. 25, 1904..................182
Coal Creek, Tenn, May 19, 1902............227
Finleyville, Pa., Apr. 12, 1912................115
Jacob Creek, Pa., Dec. 19, 1907.............230
Johnstown, Pa., July 10, 1902................113
Littleton, Ala., Apr. 8, 1911...................123
Marianna, Pa., Nov. 28, 1908.................154
Virginia City, Ala., Feb. 20, 1905..........160


West Virginia Archives and History