The Smith Mine Disaster of 1943 – near Red Lodge, Montana MT.
From the Billings, MT. Gazette, Feb 26, 2013:
Saturday paid time-and-a-half at the Montana Coal and Iron Co.’s Smith Mine between Bearcreek and Washoe.
Miners who had just emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930s eagerly worked the overtime weekend shift. They had the added incentive of doing their part to keep the World War II war machine running.
Although many were immigrants, they were a patriotic lot, according to Matt Stump, a senior in history at Montana State University Billings. Most had the cost of war bonds deducted from their wages, he said.
As 1942 drew to a close, Frank Mourich, a native of Austria, had increased his purchase of war bonds to $75 of his $132 biweekly paycheck, Stump found while researching his senior thesis.
Daylight was about an hour old when Mourich and 76 other coal miners entered the mouth of the Smith Mine on Feb. 27, 1943. On that bright winter morning, they descended about 7,000 feet into the No. 3 vein and went to work.
No one knows whether any of these men intent on their work noticed an unusual buildup of methane gas or coal dust, and there are only theories about what ignited an explosion so powerful that it blew a 20-ton locomotive off its tracks.
Management got its first notification of the disaster below from hoisting engineer Alex Hawthorne, 55, who telephoned the surface and said: “There’s something wrong down here. I’m getting out.”
All three survivors, who were described in the newspaper as “very sick,” were rushed to a hospital in Red Lodge, five miles away.
Also hospitalized early that day were eight volunteers who were searching for survivors.
Above ground, miners’ families kept a calm, hopeful watch, The Gazette reported.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross, already in a high state of preparedness because of the war, quickly established a canteen to feed the crowd gathering at the mine. Within an hour of the first call for help, the organization had set up a 50-bed emergency hospital in Red Lodge, with the assistance of local high school students.
On Sunday, Feb. 28, experienced miners told reporters that they believed that there was just a “thousand to one chance” trapped miners were still alive. The Butte specialists, who were equipped with oxygen masks, could stay underground as long as six hours at a time, but they were unfamiliar with the mine. Regular mine employees with only filter masks could not go as deep into the tunnel.
Desperate to save family members and friends, local miners stayed down as long as they could.
The rescue effort was grim.
“When exhausted rescuers come out of the mine, most of them are dazed and groggy from the effects of the gas for hours afterward," The Gazette reported. "They are taken to the Red Lodge emergency hospital and put to bed. Drugs are administered to quiet their nerves, but many grow hysterical.”
Six bodies had been recovered by Sunday. But miners’ wives kept the faith.
“Calm and steadfast, unalterable in belief that their men will come out all right, they waited side by side on benches in the improvised canteen set up in the machine shop,” Gazette reporter Kathryn Wright wrote. “Many have been there since the disaster to meet the boys ‘when they come out.’ ”
Robert Wakenshaw’s wife, awaiting word of her husband and her father-in-law, held her head high and her shoulders erect as she told Wright: “I know they’re coming out. I have all the confidence in the world.”
Seventeen-year-old Martha Barovich knew her widowed father, Sam, would emerge safely.
In agonizing slowness over the next week, the number of bodies began to mount. The last — that of mine foreman Elmer Price, 53 — came out on March 7. He left a wife and five children.
The final casualty of the disaster, Matt Woodward, a rescue worker suffering the effects of his efforts, died April 9. His death brought the total to 75.
Video captured with a Canon Vixia HFS-100 camera and edited with Adobe Premier Pro.
Music "Oppressive Gloom" by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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