Imagine a river, winter-hungry, teeth of stone and ice, thawing,
its way up the river bank. It was only 2 feet deep on January 20.
Now it’s 22 feet of water,
Imagine a mine. Can you? A honeycomb of weaknesses built by hollowing out veins of rich coal. Hard coal. Anthracite. Galleries as wide as a church where the arteries are wide. Narrowing down to — just barely — the width of your chest where the black blood thins. Paths (they call them man-ways) sprawl in a drunken spree through eons of rock.
Imagine the men. Miners all, who because that’s what they are, go by other titles: the foreman, the topper, the electrician, the motorman, the laborer. Rip off the masks they wear in grey and grainy pictures of aging men, remembering.
See rock men, hacking their way to the underbelly of the swollen Susquehanna. Six feet under the torrent, then a few feet, then 19 inches. The law said give the river 35 feet. Thirty-five feet of earth insurance against the weight of the surging stew of winter water and ice, now as tall as a two-story building.
“If that river comes (down on us), we’ll be drowned like rats,” said Herman Zelonis.
Gene Ostrowski had nightmares about his bedroom ceiling cracking and falling on him and his young son as they slept together in the same bed.
They worked in the River Slope Mine, which followed a rich seam called the Pittston bed. As it neared the water, it lifted and rose some 50 feet to kiss the lip of the river before diving and deepening again.
“I no more than put my foot in the place and looked up, than the roof gave way. It sounded like thunder. Water poured down like Niagara Falls.”
That’s Assistant Foreman Jack Williams who was 62 on January 22, 1959.
Eighty-one miners reported for work at 7 a.m.
Seventy four were trapped.
Sixty two escaped.
In the darkness, lost. The way in is not the way out — the water has taken it from you. Squeeze through shafts, run up slopes, dig through rubble. Avoid the water nibbling first at your toes, then it will hang its heavy weight on your calves, your knees, your thighs. Sucks you down.
Twelve did not.
The damnation of water gushing and gnawing soon quelled all hope of air pockets. The very next day the search for the living was called off. The bodies of the dead were never found.
The damnation of water rammed through barrier pillars and ripped through roofs, swallowing men first, then the demon trespasser took this mine, and ravaged other mines linked by tunnels and shafts until it took 7,000 jobs. A different sort of devastation.
The damnation of water created a whirlpool on the surface of the river, wider than a baseball diamond, and chewed into the river bank — a malevolent Milky Way that spun to drain the river dry.
To stopper the hole, they twisted the rail line that ran on the riverbank to deliver “dozens of mine cars, tons of boulders, truck loads of coal waste, and hundreds of bales of wood shavings and hay.”
On Friday January 23rd, they rolled 60 monster “coal hopper (train) cars — fifty-ton behemoths called gondolas into the void.” Fifty feet long and 25 tons each.
The hole welcomed them and asked for more. The giant cars bobbed like Lego bricks and danced slowly into the hole. “That car would just keep going around a circle, down, down and zoom she’d disappear,” said George Gushanas, who supervised the campaign at the site of the breach.
And still it drank.
More debris, more fill, telephone poles and copper wire, hundreds of loads of breaker rock. (30-40 dump trucks ceaselessly feeding the beast.)
“Finally (on Saturday night) the whirlpool stopped.”
But the seeping and the creeping of the water underground did not. The waters slowed but the roll call of closed mines lengthened.
Those 12 men were already dead, but now Pittston mining itself was drowning, dying. All those jobs. (All that money.)
So a dam was built. They pushed the river out of the way to see its tender broken bed.
With 1,200 cubic feet of concrete and 26,000 yards of sand, they choked the treachery of the river, but ever-yawning catacombs of blame remained.
The morass of greed out-monsters the river, which spent itself in caverns and crevices, and was finally tamed by the hand of man.
All while the hands of men — these hands? those hands? — embrace the greed.
The leprous greed reaches and stinks and spreads. The system of mining in Pittson and beyond was a cocktail of greed. Sip,sip, swallowgulpguzzle. Drink and drink and drink and always the thirst for more.
Blame the greed of companies, the company men, the men they bought.They sliced and diced the labor laws and found new ways to lease the work to others, shedding responsibility and reaping more profits.
Blame the greed of the union, the union men who took bribes, who were mobsters, who became rich. A union president who was a bank president, who was secretly part owner of the Knox Mine Company, which owned this mine.
Shall we blame the miners, too? So many mining disasters before this one, a rich seam of death. Owners and managers point out to countless investigators that miners know the risks. It is a dangerous business, after all. And the investigators swallow it.
But this one? Here’s the harsh truth:
“Federal and state investigators had discovered the illegal mining (too close to the river) months before. They informed officials at the Knox Mine Company, but the mining continued. Finally on January 13 the federal government inspector ordered all work stopped. Yet on that date, Knox supervisors allowed the night shift to take 13 additional cars of coal. The rupture occurred at the precise spot of the last shift’s digging.”
Yet, no one, after layers of investigations, inquests and indictments, was ever found criminally negligent for the deaths of twelve men.
The miners paid with their lives, just because they wanted to get the rich coal that ran on and on, under the river. They knew, and mined, just because they were hungry for fatter paychecks …to buy their kids …
Twelve of them: Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Scottish and Slovak. The rich immigrant stew that lived and died in the mines.
Eugene Ostrowski, who had nightmares sleeping with his young son
Herman Zelonis, who foretold his own death “dying like rats”
The list of names is on a memorial on the grounds of what used to be — 54 years ago — a church in Port Griffith, a suburb of Pittston. It says “Near here….”
The small stone that marks the site is nearly lost, hidden this July in a peaceful meadow, off a rail trail, beyond a locked gate, with the sluggish Susquehanna innocently lazing nearby.
A footnote? Poets usually thieve like magpies, but you should know:
It took three Wolenskys, Robert, Nicole and Kenneth to write the books these quotes are from: The Knox Mine Disaster and Voices of The Knox Mine Disaster. Both published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.