Fayette County Genealogy Project

Deadly Fire Damp

Fayette County, Pa. October 30, 1884
Contributed by Donna Clark

An explosion of Fire Damp resulting in the death of fourteen miners and the injury of several others.

On Monday afternoon at about 4 o'clock, a terrible explosion of gas occurred in the mines of the Youngstown Coke Company, just a little over three miles from here. There were two explosions, the second happening two or three minutes after the first, but not near so loud.

The first one was heard a mile away. J.M.B. Rals, superintendent of the works and James Cole, pit boss, had spent considerable time in the mine on Monday afternoon, directing some new rooms that were being driven, etc. and had left the mine to go to the office to consult the map of it. They had just reached the office door, when the explosion took place and they had scarcely been away from the place where it happened, ten minutes.

Immediately following the report, a mountain of smoke poured out of the pit mouth and pass way and continued to issue forth for two hours, thus fully indicating that there was a large amount of gas in the mine, and that it would prove a very disasterous accident.

Every one said right away after the accident, that it had happened on the fifth or sixth flat on the right side of the slope, as these were the only places in the mine where any gas was known to exist. But, the question that puzzled all was as to how it was ignited as there were but two men working on the sixth flat right, Frank Nicklow and son, and they each had safety lamps. The majority of the men were working down below on the fifth flat on both the right and left of the slope, but the greater part on the right.

The men on the day turn had left the mine and the night turn had been at work about two hours. Just the exact amount that was in cannot be ascertained, but after a careful investigation, it was discovered that the mine at the time contained twenty six men, the majority of whom were husbands and fathers, and families which were dependent on them for their food and clothing.

There was great excitement about the works and men, and women and children hastened to near the mine entrance.

Lamps were lighted and preparations made to search the mine immediately after the explosion and there was no trouble in getting a sufficiency of men well acquainted with the mine to join in the search.

The only entrance that could be used with safety was the air shaft. Mr. Rals, the superintendent and Jas. Cole, the pit boss headed the party of explorers, and the search was continued from a few minutes after four on Monday afternoon, until a little after two on Tuesday morning, when the last body was found.

Several of the men engaged in the search were so affected with the foul air that filled the mines, that they became quick sick and were compelled to seek their beds.

When all the inmates of the mine had been discovered and brought out, it was found that fourteen were killed, ten injured and two escaped unhurt.

The names of those killed were as follows:

  • WILLIAM MINARD hauler, aged ?? leaves a wife and four children.
  • JAS. PRICE Bootsman, aged 45, burned, leaves a wife and several small children.
  • JAS. PRICE JR. son of the above, aged 18 was burned.
  • THOS. COLE aged 45, burned. Leaves a sick wife and nine small children.
  • JESSIE MILLER German, aged 53, smothered and slightly burned, leaves a wife and family. He had only been working in the mines about two weeks.
  • GEORGE MILLER son of James, aged 15, smothered.
  • ALBERT TAYLOR aged 37, smothered, leaves a wife who will in a few days become a mother.
  • ABRAHAM WILSON roadman, aged 36, burned, leaves a wife and four children.
  • FRANK NICKLOW aged 46, smothered, leaves a wife and four children.
  • WILLIAM NICKLOW son of Frank, aged 17, smothered.
  • GEORGE CUNNINGHAM aged 36, burned, leaves a wife and one child.
  • SOLOMAN VANBICKLE aged 23, badly burned and mangled, leaves a wife and one child.
  • JOS. ZEBLEY pumper, aged 18, burned.
  • JACK LAPE rope rider, aged 33, burned, leaves a wife and five children.

The following were more or less injured, but at present writing, are all considered out of danger: Jacob Cole, David Cole, Chauncy Wilson, Chauncy Miller, Jerry Ringer, and James Darby.

Three or four others were in very weak condition and would have died from suffocation had they been left in the mine much longer. The injured men were taken to their homes as soon as brought out of the mines, and the best of medical treatment given them, and whatever was necessary for their comfort and that of their families was promptly done by the company officials.

The killed were washed and dressed and placed side by side in a small frame building near the store where the coroner and his jury viewed them on Tuesday morning. The bodies were laid out in new under and outer clothing, provided by the company from it's store and all expenses of burial, etc., was borne by the company and all done for the comfort and convenience of the badly bereaved families that was necessary. After the bodies were viewed, each was conveyed to it's late residence and all were buried yesterday. With the exception of two, they were natives and many of them of this county.

The scenes about the air shaft as the bodies were being brought out and at the various homes that suffered so greatly by the accident were such as cannot be described. They were sad beyond conception. Coroner Batton enpanelled his jury on Tuesday morning and they viewed the bodies and adjourned to meet at the town hall here this morning at ten oclock to take testimony in the matter.

The jury is composed of the following gentlemen, who are all residents of this place: A.H. Wycoff, Aaron Bowman, J.W. Darby, Richard McClean, Issac Hurst, and O.P. Markle. August Silner, mine inspector for the district, arrived Monday morning and had not yet left when the accident happened. He returned to the works on Monday evening, only a short time after the explosion and gave instructions, etc., as to what should be done.

On Tuesday he, in company with a number of experienced mine and fire bosses, made an examination of the mine to ascertain, if possible, where the explosion happened, by whom the gas was ignited, and as to the quantity of gas still in it. They were thus engaged for about three hours and they are of the opinion that the explosion occured in a room between the the sixth and seventh flats, and that the gas was allowed to get into that part of the mine by the haulers who failed to keep the door on the sixth flat closed.

When only a portion of the mines are working, as was the case on Monday, the hauler is required to open and close the room as he passes up and down with the trips, and when the full quotient of miners are at work, a boy is employed for that work. Where they think the explosion occurred, the gas could not have been ignited by any other than Minerd, the hauler, who had a naked light. Every miner was well acquainted with the sixth flat, and none would go near it without a safety lamp.

The gas evidently must have gotten pretty widely distributed, as men 1300 feet away from where the explosion happened were killed. The force of the explosion was terrible and the men were blown nearly a hundred feet, all the doors and bracings blown to splinters and demolished. Considerable gas was found in the mine on Tuesday, but it will soon be exhausted when the air _______ are again _____ to proper. This is being done now. The mine has always been one of the best ventilated in the region and pronounced as _____ by experienced men.

This theory of Mr. Berringer and the experts will hardly hold good, as Minerd, who they say ignited the gas, was not burned, the he drove, but both. Futhermore, he did not have a naked light as has been stated, but was compelled to use a safety lamp, always.

The only man in the mine with a naked light was Sol Vanbickle, who was working on the first ______ of the seventh flat, very close to the slope and near the intersection of it and the 6th flat. That portion of the mine is the right of the slope from the 5th flat to a point _______ of 300 feet from the mouth of the pit, a distance of about 1000 feet, is worked out.

Where a mine is thus worked out, and the _____ drawn, there is always considerable falling in, and such is the case with this mine. The supposition of Mr. Rals, superintendent, and James Cole, pit boss, and all the experienced miners that work there, is that there had been a heavy fall of roof in this worked out portion, that caused a rush of air through that part of the mine, and then the gas on the 6th flat was forced through a straight passage down to where Vanbickle was working.

Zebley, the pumper, was also working on the slope, and not very far from Vanbickle, and these two were the only men who were burned to amount to anything, and the only ones who were mangled, thus fully indicating that they were right where the explosion occurred. The roof of the slope, for a distance nearly five hundred feet was jarred down, and that is further evidence that the explosion was near the slope. Some of the injured men may throw more light on the subject when they are able to talk.

The body of Soloman Vanbickle was sent to his relatives in the mountain, that of Taylor to his friends near Morgantown, West Virginia. Those of James Miller and son to Myersdale. The remaining ten were buried in the cemetery yesterday, at Frost's Station.

Republic News Standard
Uniontown, Pa.
October 30, 1884.