DEATH COMES A KNOCKING
My friend before me lies; in all save breath
He seems the same as yesterday. His face
So like to life, so calm, bears not a trace
Of that great change which all of us so dread
But sleeps; and soon he will arise and take
Me by the hand. I know he will awake
And smile on me as he did yesterday;
And he will have some gentle word to say
Same kindly deed to do; for loving thought
Was warp and woof of which his life was wrought.
He is not dead. Such souls forever live
In boundless measure of the love they give.
The Willow Grove Mine which has long been closed was once nestled deep in a valley beside a tumbling little stream in Belmont County, Ohio. It was located twelve miles west of Wheeling, West Virginia, and four miles south of St. Clairsville. The mine was surrounded by tiny mining communities.
When death came knocking at the door of Hanna Coal Company's No. 10 Mine at Willow Grove, twenty-four year old Czech-born Frank Opatrny described it as a big whoosh. "The noise wasn't loud, but the force of the blast tore doors off their hinges and smashed supporting girders like they were matches," he said. Deaths icy fingers entombed more than seventy men in a matter of seconds at eleven o'clock on Saturday morning, March 16, 1940. Opatrny was the first man to walk from the mouth of the tipple after the explosion. "They're all dead. . . . They couldn't live through that blast," he whispered sadly.
"I was working on a motor near the junction of 22 South and the Main haulage way, Frank Opatry said. "The blast crashed down the tunnel and knocked me off the motor flat on the ground filling my eyes and mouth full of dust. I was working with six men about three miles from the tipple. After the blast we huddled together and stayed where we were. In a few minutes Charley Naylor, the assistant mine superintendent came along and led us to the tipple mouth," Opatrny said.
On May 21, 1935, the miner's at Willow Grove defied the superstition that if a woman went inside a coal mine it brought bad luck. They gave the First Lady of the Land, Eleanor Roosevelt who was eager to obtain first-hand knowledge on mining methods, a grand tour of their mine. "It's to clean to be a coal mine," she declared. Mrs. Roosevelt donned a miner's hard hat and an old grey coat for her two-mile tour. She seated herself in the first car of a six-car train, and no doubt waved or spoke to some of the miners who would later lose their lives. Willow Grove was looked upon as a model mine, and one of the safest in the nation. Yet not even five years later a death-dealing blast snuffed out the lives of seventy-three men. Mrs. Roosevelt was visiting in Pittsburgh at the time of the disaster. She expressed her regrets as she recalled her visit to the mine.
Motorman Steve Olexa was leaving 19 north at the south junction with a loaded trip and was
enveloped in a cloud of dust and smoke when the blast occurred. He gave the motor full power
before he lost consciousness. At the outside loop the trolley pole flew off and the trip
coasted back into the mine about nine-hundred feet. Mine Superintendent John Richards and
Outside Tipple Foreman Howard Sanders were near the entry when the explosion occurred.
They rushed into the mine with two other outside men. The outside men brought the motorman
and the trip out and revived Olexa. Richards and Sanders continued on into the mine looking
for other victims, but were overcome by deadly afterdamp. Their bodies were the first to be
When news of the blast reached the people of Belmont County more than three-thousand people
rushed to the scene blocking highways and delaying ambulances and rescue workers. So, an army
of Ohio highway patrolmen was deployed to guard all roads leading to the mine entrance. Only
vehicles carrying supplies or rescuers were permitted to pass. Sheriff Howard Duff and his
deputies were also at the scene to assist.
Weary rescue crews moved against the deadly black damp with their nostrils clamped in oxygen masks and their eyes covered with goggles using picks, shovels, and drills in an attempt to reach the trapped men. As workers passed in and out of the main entrance of the mine, they would whisper softly, "We haven’t reached them yet." Fires blazed throughout the night to fight off the chill as tragic-faced women and children held vigil.
Eight canaries who were poor singers were caged at the Hanna Coal Company offices by the miners who had scoured the countryside to find them. The chirp of the yellow bird was a strange contrast to the gloom that hung in the air. The canary bird organs are much more sensitive than a human's organs, and the birds were used to detect poisonous gases. Canaries reacted to explosive methane gas faster than the tiny gasoline safety light used at that time. The birds were also used to detect black damp which is carbon dioxide and after damp which is carbon monoxide. The yellow songsters commanded great respect because they were designated as martyrs to save the lives of men who explored shattered mine passages searching for survivors.
Safety experts of the US Bureau of Mines load rescue equipment as they prepare to leave
Pittsburgh for the disaster scene at the Willow Grove Mine.
Twenty-three men escaped death by collapsing from exhaustion. Soon after the blast the men
started their three-mile trek plodding along the track toward the entrance of the mine. When
they had walked about a mile drowsiness from the gas, began to take its toll, and every step
became a little more difficult. The first man fell a mile from the entrance. Two miners grabbed
him by his arms dragging him as they stumbled toward the entrance. John Grady Vechezone fell to
the ground and cut his head. He managed to pull himself along with hands that soon became bloody. Frank Bakosh and Harold Stullenberger stopped often to wash the faces of the fallen with water
from their dinner buckets to revive them. They were among the last to lose consciousness. The
last victim they assisted was John Friedberg. Stullenberger fell over John's body. He was
conscious, but exhausted. He could hear Bakosh repeating "What's a matter Stoney. What's a
matter." Then he heard Bakosh fall. Nearly five hours passed before the rescue crew reached the
men who were all prone. A first aid expert said none would have survived if they had been in a
sitting position. Passing out saved their lives as the only good air was on the ground.
Greek immigrant, John Demopolis was one of the victims of the Willow Grove disaster. He was
born on the Isle of Crete on January 1, 1886, and came to America seeking a better lifestyle.
His bride, Despina Spadidakis was an arranged marriage. She was also from Crete, and was born
May 1, 1894. John left to morn him a wife and five children: Gus, Helen, Mary, and twins Irene
The Hanna Company from Cleveland, Ohio bought the Willow Grove Mine in 1931. In less than a
decade they installed machinery which updated the mine to one of the best equipped mines in the
state. At the time of the disaster about seven-hundred men were on the payroll, and for several
years the mine worked three shifts.
The Ohio Compensation Department insured all the Hanna Coal Company men, and a spokesman said
the disaster would be one of the biggest jobs the department had handled in years. According to
the department widows would receive about sixty-five hundred dollars.
The Bureau of Mines declared the explosion to be caused by an excessive shot of black powder
which stirred up "bug dust" and coal dust and ignited a flame. Gas at the face of the mine, and
black powder in a storage box added to the impact of the explosion. Rock dust had been applied
only to the main haulageway. Water was not used to settle coal dust. Willow Grove was classed
as a non-gassy mine, and they didn't employ a fire boss. The section foremen had flame safety
lamps. The company had a creditable safety record with an active safety program, so this type
of disaster was not imagined.
Things didn't always run perfectly in the Hanna Mine. When something went wrong, they called
Doctor Drummond who investigated, and phoned the machine shop for parts or assistance. A cutting
machine on the C-2 Crew developed a "sore throat," so in this picture Doctor Drummond is calling
the shop to rush him a new part to put the machine back in working order.
Harry L. Drummond didn't die in the mine disaster. He was born in Neffs on June 5, 1897, and
he died in Bellaire June 9, 1977. The entry portal of the WIllow Grove mine has been sealed,
and the shower house and office were torn down in the year 2000.
It was told a marker was erected to immortalizing the canaries who died in the rescue attempts
of that disaster, but Harry granddaughter, Patty has never found any record proving that a
monument was erected. If anyone has information about the canaries please contact me by e-mail at
the bottom of the page. The information and picture was supplied by Harry Drummond's
Joseph Chirik, also escaped dying in the explosion. He was scheduled to work the afternoon
shift, and the mine blew up at eleven o'clock. When his son, Joe graduated from Bellaire High
School his dad told him he'd rather he moved away than work in the mines. He took his advice.
In 1983, Joe and his father attended a remembrance that was held for the miners who died.
Cecil Grimes rose early to prepare for work at the Willow Grove Mine. Just before leaving,
he quietly slipped into the bedroom to kiss his wife, Clara (Graham) goodbye. He told her it had
snowed that night, and to look out her window at the beauty left behind when she got up. He said
“I love you,” and walked across the threshold of his home for the last time as he departed for
work. He not only left Clara behind, but also their four children, William Cecil age eight,
Constance age seven, Ronald age five, and Columbine age three. Clara and Cecil were both
twenty-nine years old.
Clara’s twin sister, Sarah was married to Glen Dickerson who escaped death. He worked the
midnight shift, and was leaving work as Cecil arrived. Clara’s youngest sister, Marjorie was not
so lucky. Her husband, Johnny Sklenica worked day shift on that fateful day when death came
knocking. He died along with Cecil and seventy other miner’s when the mine blew at eleven o’clock
Until her death in 2000, Clara often talked about what a loss Cecil was to the family. She
said along with God’s help she picked up the pieces of their lives and did the best should
could by their children. His death left an empty hole in their hearts that no one could ever
Submitted by daughter, Constance Grimes McNeal and great-grandaughter, Dana Ann McNeal
Three days after the mine disaster, two of the men listed as missing reported to the mine
office. Charles Klusky, age 35 of Fairpoint and Clarence Gillespie, age 30 of St. Clairsville.
Neither of the men reported for work that fateful day, but their lamps were missing so it was
assumed they worked that day.
The Bureau of Mines declared seventy-two men died in the explosion. According to their
records sixty-six men died by burns and violence, three by burns and after-damp, two attempting
the rescue of the trapped miners, and one man died six days after the accident from the effects
of after-damp. However, in my research I found only seventy-one names listed, so I am assuming
the man who died later was not listed.
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle was supplied by James G. Boyle from St. Clairsville.
He has a laminated program from a Memorial Tribute that was held on March 13, 1983 for those
who lost their lives in the mine explosion. The UMWA dedicated a plaque which was to be hung at
the District 6 headquarters in Dilles Bottom. It listed all 72 names. Paul L. Taylor was the
name of the miner I didn't have on my list.
Richard L. Trumka, who was International President of the UMWA in 1983 was a speaker at the
memorial to remember the victims of Willow Grove. On February 22, 1983, he made this statement
before Congress. The United Mine Workers of America insist that every death in coal mining is a
tragedy, every injury a calamity, and every occupationally-induced disease a disgrace. Each
death, injury, and disease is avoidable. The UMWA will not accept a continuation of the
tragedies of the past. We demand a safe and healthful work place.
The heyday of underground mining has almost vanished just like most of the mining towns that
once hummed with activity. However, "Black Lung" is still claiming victims. My dad, and my
father-in-law both died of complications to that awful disease. There are still some underground
mines operating such as the Quecreek Mine at Somerset, PA. In June of 2002 nine miners were
trapped inside that mine. They were a mile and a half inside the flooded mine treading water
for seventy-seven hours. The Nation rejoiced when all nine were rescued. It was about time for
a sucess story.
My brother, George Thomas Fulton was one of 72 miners killed at the Willow Grove mine.
He was named for his uncle, George Thomas Fulton, who died at home in the fullness of his
years at age 84, on Friday, the day before the coal mine explosion on Saturday, that killed
my brother, age 29. He was survived by his wife, Verna, and daughter, Sue Lane, age two.
On the following Monday our family attended Uncle George's funeral not knowing the fate of
my brother. His body was brought out on Wednesday. Identification was difficult, but was done by
my father, James M. Fulton, my oldest brother, James H. Fulton, and my mother, Martha Hensley
Fulton who insisted on helping with the identification. Mother was a remarkably strong woman who
raised ten children.
Sometime in the early 1930's my father had bought one of the vacant miner's houses owned
by the operator of the Elinor mine in Warnock, Ohio, which closed in the 1920's. The house
was dismantled and moved by horse and wagon to a location on the family farm where it was
rebuilt for George and his new bride, Verna Neff Fulton. George quit the mines to run
the farm. However, he went back to work at Willow Grove to pay off some furniture that they had
bought for their new home. George handed in his notice to quit just two weeks before the
explosion. Life does take tragic turns at times.
The happy life of ten children growing up on the farm with their parents was altered
forever by George's death. Verna died two years ago and their daughter, Sue Fulton Johnson,
retired recently as a Nurse from the Ohio Valley Medical Center. She has no recollection of
this sad event.
George was a gifted person. He was a very good athlete especially as a baseball player.
Often, while playing right field, he would charge the ball on what should have been a clean
single to right and would throw out the runner at first base. Once, in a pick-up football
game, he got his leg fractured, but went to work for a week before going to the doctor to have
it cast. Sadly, the peculiarity of the broken leg aided in his identification after the
explosion. George bought a mandolin through the Sears catalogue and taught himself to read
music and to play. He became pretty good at it too. I can still visualize him practicing.
George had a sunny disposition, a beautiful smile, and a devilish sense of humor. He was
very kind to children (a trait I have always used to judge people) and he taught the young
men's Sunday school class at our local church. When I was four years old, I severely sprained
an ankle and could not walk. I really wanted to go to the Belmont County Fair so George
carried me on his shoulders all afternoon at the fair.
A favorite memory of him is of him playing on his living room rug with his baby daughter, Sue. He will always be remembered as he was at 29, in the prime of his life. I have often wondered how he would have looked at age 84 (as I watch my own reflection age in the mirror) but that was denied us by his premature death.
sumbitted by: brother, Bill Fulton
Source: Information sent to me by Archivist Jane DeMarchi who is employed by the Beckley, WV Mine Safety and Health Administration. Newspapers: The Columbus Citizen, Columbus Evening Dispatch, Columbus Evening Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Wheeling Intelligencer, Bellaire Daily Leader, The Wichita Eagle. The US Department of Labor, Bureau of Mines. Kathi Wiley, granddaughter of victim John Demoplis, James G. Boyle who lives in St. Clairsville.Informaiton on Cecil Grimes given by daughter, Constance Grimes McNeal and great-grandaughter, Dana Ann McNeal, Information on George Thomas Fulton by brother, Bill Fulton.
Notes: Methane gas - colorless, odorless, flammable, gaseous alkane present in natural gas
and formed by decomposition of vegetable matter in mines. After-damp - An asphyxiating gas which
is carbon monoxide that is left in a mine after an explosion of firedamp. Black-damp -
Suffocating gas, a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen which occurs in mines.