Howard Collieries Mine Rescue Team

Standing: left to right Shelby Decker, Eugene Mahon, Gene McClelland

Others: left to right Charles Slone, Charles Rucker, Captian Ira Goble

List of names furnished by Charles Rucker which was e-mailed to me by Betty Stepp.

Photo and information are the courtesy of Tim Adair who is the grandson of Ira Goble. I did a telephone interview with Ira Goble shortly before his death in 2005.

The picture of the Howard Collieries Mine Rescue team from Chattaroy was taken in Columbus, Ohio, after a National Mine Rescue contest. The team won the title of WV State Champions in 1951. After the competition was over a reporter ask Ira Goble who was the captain of the team if he would bring his team down to the Columbus Citizen newspaper building to have their picture taken. They were all tired and all they wanted to do was get back to Chattaroy After the reporter offered them a bottle of whisky they agreed. So, the team went downtown, and walked into the building with all their equipment on. Panic broke out among the women in the office when they saw the men in their gear, and thought something was seriously going on. The reporter who wanted the picture was still at the competition, so a cameraman hustled them outside and took their picture. Ira told Gene McClelland who decided to stay for the next days events to make sure the reporter sent them their whiskey. He told Gene to tell the reporter he didn't want to come back to Columbus to collect. When Gene came home, he had the bottle of whiskey that had been promised to them.

Mingo County had never suffered a major mine disaster until January 18, 1951 when the No. 1 Mine at the Kermit Burning Springs Collieries Company exploded. The mine was opened in 1942, and located twenty-one miles west of Williamson, West Virginia. They employed 80 men, and 68 of the men worked underground.

At the time of the accident 45 men were inside the mine, however the explosion was confined to only one section. Thirteen men were working in the section that blew, and eleven men were killed Shortly after the explosion, a motorman delivering a trip of empty cars near the site noticed smoke and dust in the haulageway. He immediately notified the outside mine office of his findings, and Superintendent T. L. Lambert, went underground to investigate.

Mr. Lambert met a mine foreman and crew who were not affected by the explosion coming out of the section. He then organized a rescue party which found a motorman and loading boom operator alive and uninjured. Heat and smoke forced the rescue crew to erect eight temporary stoppings in No. 3 entry to replace the three blown out by the force of the explosion. When ventilation was restored the search continued to No. 3 entry where five bodies were recovered. Recovery of six more bodies was accomplished without the use of respiratory protection after a test with a flame safety lamp for methane gas revealed the area clear. A watch was found on one of the victims which had stopped at 11:51 a.m. which indicated the time of the explosion.

Ira Goble and his team were the nearest team in the area, and the first to arrive. However, a Federal Mine Inspector refused to let them go into the mine without a backup team. The inspector was told Pond Creek had been called and was expected shortly, so even though it was a Federal Law to have a backup team on hand Ira's team was allowed to enter the mine. When the team located the bodies, they knew that someone had already been inside the mine and had examined the bodies. Ira grew up with Charley Sparks and knew his son Proctor, so it was a dismal task recovering their bodies. The Federal man only allowed them to bring out two bodies at a time which were placed into a waiting ambulance and quickly taken away. They didn't want families to witness the condition of their loved ones' bodies. So, Ira's team stayed in the mine until they were signaled to bring out two more bodies.

When all the bodies were recovered the superintendent thanked them, and said they would be paid for their time. Several weeks passed without the team receiving any payment. So, Ira and a couple of the men went to see the superintendent who claimed he thought payment had been made. He took them to the bookkeeper, and asked Ira how much they owed them. Ira said, "Whatever you think is fair." So, the superintendent told the bookkeeper to give them a check for fifty dollars. They made it out to Ira since he was the captain. He cashed the check in Kermit, and the men told Ira to keep the extra two dollars. So, Ira got ten dollars and other members of the team got eight dollars for risking their lives in the recovery of the eleven men.

At a hearing held on January 23, five of the company employees who assisted with the recovery of the bodies admitted they searched the bodies and removed all smoking articles so investigators would not find them. They said some of the articles removed from the bodies were hidden and some later discarded into a garbage can at the bathhouse. After testifying, the men led state and federal officials underground to where they had hidden the articles. This was no doubt the men that went into the mine before Ira's rescue team arrived.

Investigators said the only piece of electrically driven equipment in operation at the explosion site was a loading machine which had three poorly made splices in a trailing cable. They reasoned this could have exposed conductors to make contact with the machine frame which could have produced sparks capable of igniting gas causing the explosion. Although the possibility that the explosion may have be ignited by someone smoking could not be discounted.

Officials declared the explosion to be accidental, and not the fault of carelessness of either mine officials or the men working. The disaster left behind eleven grieving widows and thirty-six fatherless children.

List of the eleven victims

Name Age survivors
Sherman Fields-driller 34 wife-7 children
Conrad Dalton-driller 43 wife-3 children
Walter Johnson-machine operatorl 44 wife-2 children
Delbert Dalton-buggy operator 27 wife-2 children
*Lochie Mounts-electrician 43 wife-6 children
Charley Porter-timberman 56 wife-6 children
John Chaffin-section boss 31 wife-3 children
Proctor Sparks ? wife-2 children
Thomas Moore, Jr.-buggy operator 23 wife
Thomas Moore, Sr.-driller 48 wife-5 children
Charley Sparks-joy helper 51 wife -1 child

Eleven wives and thirty children were left to mourn

*The Bureau of Mines listed Lochie Mounts as having four children at the time of his death. However, according to his daughter, Anna Mounts-Penna there were six children age six weeks to nine years old. Anna was the fourth child. Anna's oldest brother was suffering from a serious burn on his leg at the time of Lochie's death. Anna said her dad had planned the following week to have a doctor remove skin from his back to be grafted on his son's leg. Her mother, Shirley Mounts said her husband was not scheduled to work that day, but worked the shift for another miner.

According to Anna, none of the widows were awarded any money for the loss of their husbands. They evicted all the women from their homes to make room for other miners. Shirley was thirty-one when her husband was killed. She didn't drive, and her husband managed all their bills. After his death she raised her children on Social Security and Workman's Compensation.

Anna was four years old when her dad was killed, and remembers that his casket was brought home as was the custom back then. Her aunt and uncle held her up to view his body. The top of his head was blown off, and he had a bandage around his head. His casket was the only one that could be opened. The other men were burned to badly for an open casket. "I am sure mother was in shock for some time after dad's death, and we were all so young that she never talked much about the accident," Anna said.

Source of information: Final report by the United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Mines, Tim Adair, Ira Goble, and Anna Mounts-Penn

Note: The border of Kentucky and West Virginia is separated at Kermit by Tug Fork which eventually flows into the Big Sandy River. So, many of the workers lived in nearby Inez, Beauty, and Lovely, Kentucky.

If you have pictures or information of your loved one who died in this disaster I'd be glad to post their picture in their memory and story for you. Dolores Riggs Davis

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