Henderson County, Kentucky


Nine survive blast but die before rescuers reach them

Thirty-eight miners went to work the night of July 14, 1939, at the DUVIN Coal Company mine about a mile north of Providence. Only 10 of them came home.

The other 28 were victims of one of Kentucky's worst mining disasters, which apparently was sparked at 7:22 p.m. by accidental detonation of dynamite as a shot driver prepared a blast.

Nineteen of the men died instantly; the other nine erected a barricade to try to protect themselves from the carbon monoxide and methane gases filling the mine. It didn't work.

From the beginning, the first reports of the explosion held out little hope. John DANIEL, state mine inspector, spoke with Governor A. B. "Happy" CHANDLER, who related his remarks to reporters.

The Gleaner reported DANIEL saying: "I do not want to paint a dark picture but our experiences have been that few survive in a case like this."

CHANDLER told him: "Well, go ahead and spare no expense in doing everything you can for them."

Within a short time of the explosion, a crowd estimated at 1,500 people gathered at the mine, many of them relatives hoping their worst fears would not be confirmed.

All but two of the men who died had wives and children. Two of the victims were father and son.

"Only the milling crowd, the endless stream of automobiles, and a heavy silence broke by occasional sobs of those awaiting word of their loved ones bore evidence of the tragedy going on nearby," The Gleaner reported.

The following day, the waiting crowd stood in drizzling rain, or huddled under shelters, while the news grew worse. "With all that carbon monoxide gas down there it doesn't look like they have any chance," DANIEL said.

The coverage continued: "First report of the blast came from Dennis WALKER, 20, who with two companions was knocked down and 'rolled over' by the concussion. WALKER, who fared better than the other two men, dragged them to safety and then telephoned the mine office.

"Soon mine rescue experts and workers with apparatus were hurrying from nearby towns and neighboring states."

Rescuers worked to the point of exhaustion, knowing that the quicker they could get to the trapped men, the better chance they would have of finding them alive.

"Coroner Guy RILEY of nearby Clay, Kentucky, collapsed this morning at the mine and was taken to Providence, a mile away," the paper reported. "Later, he conducted an inquest at two funeral homes where bodies were taken. The coroner empaneled a jury of experienced mine men and questioned a number of witnesses on conditions at the DUVIN mine.

"Meantime, Providence's committee of five leading citizens pushed ahead to raise between $100,000 and $125,000 by popular subscription to care for the most destitute families of the victims. Governor A. B. CHANDLER said today no funds were available from the state to aid."

Vester PARKER headed one of the two rescue parties and later told reporters what he had seen:

"It was actually horrible. I saw 13 men that I recognized as friends. Some of them were cut and torn. I recognized one by the glasses which were buried in his face."

The rescue party then pushed on to try to get to the trapped miners, he said.

"We waded through water over our knees in the old workings and crawled like rats through parts that had been shaken by the explosion. We got within 2,000 feet of where the nine men were found and four of the two crews began to gasp for air. We rushed them to the main shaft and out of the mine."

Griffith T. POWELL of the U. S. Bureau of Mines, who headed the other rescue crew, said the nine men were found lying in a row.

"He said the men had conformed to established emergency procedure - they had erected a brattice (air-tight barricade) and laid down to preserve strength and conserve air.

"If they had take time to construct the brattice or more durable material that jute bagging," POWELL said, "they might have lived."

Two notes were found scratched on a piece of wood, saying that the miners were alive and well at 12:15 and 1:40 a.m. - about six hours after the initial blast.

Rescuers were about 10 hours too late in reaching the barricade the trapped miners had erected. "We tapped on the walls and no response was received," POWELL said. "We then tore the wooden wall down and found the men, all dead, lying there.

"All were on the ground. Seven, who apparently had died of the fumes while sleeping, were lying side by side with their hands on their stomachs and sides. Two others, who I think were waiting for us, had fallen over in a hump shape.

"One man had a watch in his lap. It was about run down."

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Henderson, KY, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Frank Boyett

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS