March 8 marks the anniversary of one of the darkest days in Logan County history. Stories of that day can be found from many different sources and perspectives, but no matter how the story is told, the effect on the close-knit mining community remains the same.
On that cold, snowy Tuesday morning 53 years ago, 20 unsuspecting miners went into the Holden Mine at Island Creek No. 22, at 7 a.m., ready to work their shift just like any other day.
The miners had only been underground a short time when there was a slate fall in the tunnels sealing them off from a fire in the coal seam that may have been sparked by a cable or line knocked down near a wooden timber.
The blaze made its way through the tunnels and frigid temperatures froze water in hoses stretched down from the surface. After the fire was extinguished, knee-deep water, steam and smoke filled the mine as teams worked round the clock hoping to rescue the men.
The story takes a positive turn when two of the trapped miners come out of the mine. Ventilation expert Willis Carter and a young miner named Kyle Blair managed to claw and squeeze through openings above the fallen roof material to reach safety some 6,000 feet away.
The two miners said Safety Engineer William Donaldson grouped the men together after the slate fall. The miners decided to wait for fire fighters and the rescue team, except for Carter and Blair, who volunteered to try and open a pair of doors to keep air from the fire area from reaching the men. When they opened the door nearest the fire, thick black smoke and poison air forced them to take the only route of escape open and prevented their opening the other door.
By Friday, hope was fading as rescue teams were no closer to reaching the trapped miners. Family and friends of the miners were holding vigils and praying for a miracle.
Rescue workers found 13 bodies Tuesday at three o’clock in the afternoon, eight days after the fire started. Silent, deadly carbon monoxide gas had claimed their lives within hours after the accident. The lost miners were wrapped in blankets and plastic bags and carried to the base of the 485-foot elevator shaft to await their final journey to the surface.
By Thursday afternoon, nine days after the incident, bodies of the the last two miners, Charles Adams and Louis Workman, were recovered.
Harris Funeral Home served as the interim resting place for the bodies. Families came there to claim their loved ones and make funeral arrangements.
Willis Carter’s son says he remembers it like it was just yesterday, “Our mother sat us down and told us our dad might not be coming home. She said there had been a terrible accident at the mine.”
Willis Carter Jr. was 12 years old at the time of the accident. He said his father was devastated after the accident and returned to the mine to try and help rescue workers.
“Dad lost his brother in that mine. My Uncle James, everybody called him Bub. Okey Bryant was a neighbor and Flint Lock Jarrells lived just over the hill. It was a sad time,” said Carter.
Carter says his father continued to work at the Holden 22 mine until they closed it down and then he worked at the Number 5 Kelly Mine across Blair Mountain.
Willis Carter Sr. died in July of 1984 at the age of 70. His son says medication he took to ease rhumetoid arthritis pain caused his kidneys to fail.
The other survivor, Kyle Blair,lost his life in a mining accident that happened an another Tuesday morning 14 years after the tragedy at Holden. He died at a Westmoreland Coal Company mine at Clothier, where he worked as a general mine foreman. Blair, 43, of Harts, died June 18, 1974, leaving behind a wife and two sons.
The 18 men who died in the mine left 72 children fatherless and made 16 wives widows. They were: Charles Adams, 46, wife and 7 children; Frank Ardis, 63, wife and 4 children; Ernest Bevins, 35, wife and 7 children; Okey Bryant, 49, widower and 5 children; James Carter, 30, wife and 6 children; Josh Chafin, Jr., 37, wife and 4 children; Roy Lee Dempsey, 52, 9 children; William Donaldson 53 wife and 1 child; Garfield Hensley 43 wife and 5 children; Berti Horvath 32 wife and 4 children; Flint Lock Jarrells, 39, wife and 6 children; Albert Marcum, Jr., 34, wife and 5 children; Melvin Newsom, 46, wife and 1 child; Isom Ooten, 43, wife and 6 children; James V. Lundell, 26, wife and 2 children; Orville Sargent, 32, wife and 1 child; Carl White, 39, wife and 3 children; Louis Workman, 32, wife and 1 child.
Those miners were everyday heroes who went to work that cold, snowy morning never dreaming it would be the last time. Memories of the tragedy that prevented their safe return home will never fade as long as the story is told.