Siltix Mine Disaster

Beckley Post Herald and The Raleigh Register
July 24, 1966

7 Die In Siltix Mine Explosion

Two Injured, 39 Escape Unharmed

A thunderous explosion ripped through the Siltix Mine of the New River Co. near Mount Hope at 8:45 a.m. Saturday, killing seven workers and injuring two.

Thirty-nine other workers were inside the mine at the time but escaped unharmed, although some had to take refuge in a small room and barricade themselves with brattice cloth until the fumes cleared and they could make their way to the surface.

The blast, believed caused by highly volatile methane gas, occurred 14,000 feet from the mouth of the mine.

Nine were working in the blast area and all but two were killed. The survivors were identified as Don Legg of Beckley and Lloyd Malcomb of Maple Fork. Both were hospitalized - Legg suffering with a cut over the eyes and a cut leg, and Malcomb in shock from burns. A spokesman at Oak Hill Hospital, where they were taken, refused to say what kind of condition they were in late Saturday night.

The dead were Howard Morris, 30, of Oak Hill, a father of five; Luther (Luke) Bowyer, 45, of Maple Fork, a father of six; Robert Daniels, 21, of Mount Hope, who became a father for the first time just 10 days ago; James McGuire, Mount Hope; Hubert Dowdy, Oak Hill; Dallas L. Ayers, Beckley, and Clarence D. Cummings, Oak Hill. The ages or additional information about the last four named were not available at press time.

Morris' brother, Homer, 30, was in the mine at the time. He said the explosion "sent me plumb over one shuttle car. It sounded like something that would take your head off."

Flock To Mine

When word of the explosion spread, friends and relatives of the miners flocked to the mine for a mournful vigil.

William L. Haslam, New River president, told them two men were dead and five unaccounted for. Six hours later, at 2:55 p.m., he said the five were dead.

The announcement evoked a rending wail from the crowd.

"Oh no, God no, it can't be," screamed a woman. She fell prostrate to the ground, arose and tried to force her way past police. "Let me go, I want to see him. Maybe it wasn't him."

Rescuers first recovered the body of Bowyer shortly after the blast. A second body was recovered at around 1 p.m. and the remaining five were found deeper underground - all within 700 feet of each other.

The last five bodies were brought to the surface in mine cars at 6:17 p.m.

Several employes - including Mine Superintendent Ronald Keaton - who were helping with the rescue work and trying to re-establish ventilation in the explosion area became ill from breathing explosion fumes. They were sent to the hospital for checking but were released shortly thereafter.

An investigation of the disaster will be made (see accompanying statement of company, union and Mines Department officials) Monday. The mine will be closed until the official investigation is completed.

Haslam theorized that one smaller explosion apparently triggered a series of blasts. He said the blasts caused thousands of tons of slate to block one of the tunnels where the men were working.

Some 142 men are reported employed by the mine in three shifts. The mine, re-opened about six years ago, is classified as a "gassy mine" by the State Department of Mines.

One witness called it a "tremendous explosion." But other miners, working in tunnels up to two miles from the blast area, said they heard nothing. They said they came to the surface when told by telephone about the mishap.

Willis Criss of nearby Oak Hill was among the other miners below, but not hurt. He said he was working near the explosion area.

"We could feel it. Our ears all stopped up. We knew it was something blowed up," Criss said, still shaking after reaching the surface.

Criss said he was working with about 11 other men, who barricaded themselves from the deadly fumes and falling slate. When the air cleared, they walked out unharmed.

Outside, despair filled the crowd as word was received that the first two bodies were found. Women holding babies wept and miners' caps shifted about silently.

When told all hope was lost, one woman cried out, "I can't believe it! It just couldn't happen!"

Another woman, overcome with grief, tried frantically to enter the mine yelling, "I want to get in! I want in there!" Several men held her back.

Another of the surviving miners was Hugh Garrett, 50, of Mt. Hope, a big man with ham-like hands. His face sweaty and dirt-covered, Garrett related that he and eight other men were 1,500 feet from the blast scene.

Tried To Escape

He said they tried to escape but were driven back by carbon monoxide, smoke and falling slate. They took refuge in a small room, using canvas to shut out the fumes.

One of the nine was the Rev. Gene Hall, who in addition to mining is the pastor of the Perry Baptist Church, which sits along the banks of the New River.

"He suggested we have a prayer meetin'," Garrett related. "We knew what had happened but that was all. We didn't known whether we'd ever get out. Everyone kneeled down. He didn't have to ask us.

"Then he came out with a good strong prayer and it was plenty lengthy. There wasn't a man present that didn't appreciate it."

An hour later, the men made their way to safety.

Death is the miners' constant Damocles sword.

"It comes on your mind all the time," said Morris. "It comes to me every day.

"...But I can't hardly quit. It's all I know."

The mine disaster was the state's worst this year. Seven men also perished Oct. 16, 1965, when they were trapped underground by fire in the Clinchfield Coal Co[.]'s Sardis mine near Clarksburg.

Other recent state mine disasters occurred April 25, 1963, at Dola when 22 men were killed in the Clinchfield Coal Co.'s Compass No. 2 Mine, and March 8, 1960, when 18 perished in an explosion at the Holden Mine of the Island Creek Coal Co. in Logan County.

It was the New River Co.'s worst disaster since 75 miners were entombed in a gas explosion in the Stuart shaft of the company's mine on White Oak Railway in Fayette County on Jan. 29, 1907.

Fayette County's worst recorded mine disaster occurred in the New River and Consolidation Coal Co.'s mine at Layland on March 2, 1915, when 112 miners perished in an explosion.

The area's worst disaster occurred April 28, 1914, at Eccles when at least 181 men (some accounts say 183) died in two explosions.


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