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Flaming Pit Entombs 15; New Blasts Shatter Seal
Charleston Daily Mail, West Virginia
November 15, 1954
Farmington, W. Va., (AP) -- Two new explosions today broke open the ventilating shaft of a coal mine sealed with 15 men inside.
The blasts at 4:15 and 9 a.m. shifted to one side a huge steel plate placed over the air shaft of the No. 9 mine last night when rescue workers had to give up their efforts to recover the 15 presumed dead.
One other miner was killed outright Saturday when a violent explosion rocked the Jamison Coal Co. pit. Two men escaped.
George Judy, superintendent of Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Co., which now owns Jamison, said gas building up pressure inside the slope mine pryed loose the steel lid on the air shaft.
Heavy, black smoke billowed out of the ventilation passage today, the last of five openings which had been sealed last night in an effort to cut off air and smother a fire burning deep underground.
Workers waited for the smoke to clear, standing a safe 500 feet away, before attempting to replace the plate and earth on the opening.
The plate also was lifted from the main portal -- 100 feet away -- by a third explosion today but it was replaced without difficulty.
No one was hurt by today's explosion, described as minor.
After the first violent blast Saturday, a second sent flames roaring from the same ventilating shaft.
A third, a sort of poof, shook the tiny mining valley yesterday evening.
The job of sealing No. 9, in an effort to cut off the flow of air and smother a fire burning deep underground, was completed late last night. It will not be reopened until tests show the air inside is safe enough for rescue teams to enter. That might take days or months.
Also closed today was James Fork Elementary School, only a few hundred yards down the valley from the mine entrance. Officials feared another explosion or escaping gas might endanger the children.
Rescue crews worked their way almost a mile down the slope and into the passageways of No. 9 late Saturday. Deadly carbon monoxide fumes from the mine fire forced them back.
After three hours of conferences between company, state and federal mine bureau officials, the decision to seal was announced early yesterday.
State Mines Chief Frank B. King, visibly moved, explained, "There is just nothing else we can do." He said the action would remove any slender hope that some of the men might still be alive.
No one could say what caused the explosion.
Vice President James Hyslop of the Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Co., which recently acquired the corporate stock of Jamison, surmised that the blast resulted from ignition of methane gas.
But only 30 minutes before it was touched off, he said, an atmosphere test in the mine showed the air was clear. "Something suddenly happened to release a considerable portion of methane," he said.
Here is the official list of men killed in the Saturday mine explosion here:
Howard Jenkins, 38, lamp man, married and with three children under 18, who was the only victim killed above ground
George Alberts, 51, section foreman, who was married but who had no children under 18
Russell Morris, 51, maintenance foreman, single
Harry Durmire, 51, maintenance foreman, married, two children under 18
Carol Ice, 51, cutting machine operator, married and one child under 18
Charles Korsh, Jr., 24, machine operator, married with one child under 18
Louis Beafore, 29, roof bolter, single
Nick Kovarbasich, 37, shuttle car operator, single
Charles Flaherty, 36, rock duster motorman, married, two children under 18
Robert Sanders, 36, rock duster, married and three children under 18
Harry Floyd, Sr., 62, pumper, married but with no children under 18
Matt Menas, 43, mechanic, married, two children under 18
Lonnie Hartzel, 49, mechanic, married with no children under 18
Clyde Keener, 63, mechanic, single
Joe Opyoke, 44, married, two children under 18
Joe Gregor, 51, dispatcher, married, two children under 18
Menas was the father of a member of the Farmington High School team which will meet Rupert next weekend in a game at Weston for the state Class B championship.
Hartzel was identified as an uncle of Sam Huff, first string tackle on West Virginia University's football team.
One man, Howard Jenkins, working at the entrance of the mine, was killed. Two, a short distance inside the main portal, heard the rumble and felt a rush of air. They reached the surface in a state of near collapse but unhurt. The whereabouts of the others were not known.
Sealing of the mine was completed about 9:35 last night when the last specially fabricated steel plate was put atop one of the two shafts wrecked by the initial explosion.
Men working under the glare of temporary floodlights and utilizing a huge crane lowered the plates over the ventilating shaft from which a huge fan was torn by the blast. The plates also covered the demolished top of the 500-foot deep opening in which a man cage had been operated to take miners to the diggings.
Several hours earlier, the main portal at the tipple had been covered with tons of wood, earth and other material, and two other openings in that vicinity had been sealed.
Company, union and other officials remained completely baffled today as to what might have caused the explosion. President Cecil J. Urbaniak of UMW District 31, said he never expected to hear of an explosion at the mine.
"They had the best housekeeping here of almost any mine I know of," Urbaniak said, "and there is just no answer how such a thing can happen when conditions were as favorable as they were here."
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