A miracle replayed 87 years later
Dressed in new suits, the 11 survivors of the Foster's Tunnel cave-in, Coaldale, top, look distinguished in their new "Sunday go to meetin'" suits as they pose on the steps of the old Coaldale Hospital following their discharge. The men are, bottom row, left to right: Door Boy Bonner; "Peanuts" Murphy, a three mule team driver; Elmer Herring, a repairman; Gint Hollywood, a miner. Second row: Charles Matakas, gangway laborer; McAndrews, a single mule driver; Halko, a laborer; and Watkins, a miner. Top row: Peter Lohenitz, miner; Michael Gottardy, laborer; and Joseph Laigon, gangway laborer.
by DAVID KUCHTA
On September 27, 1915, eleven men were entombed in the East Mammoth Vein of the Foster Tunnel. It was a water level opening of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, situated on the Southwest boundary line of the town of Coaldale, Pennsylvania.
A sudden rush of water from the East Mammoth top split gangway, an abandoned working area, entombed the 11 men for six full days. According to LC&N records, the 11 men were: four contract miners, two laborers, a battery starter, a loader, two mule drivers and a door tender who were involved in driving the chute that eventually flooded. It might be well to note that the East Mammoth top split gangway of Foster's tunnel had been worked and the breasts broke through into the East Mammoth top split gangway. The water, which closed the bottom split gangway, came from these breasts. No trouble was ever experienced with water problems in any of these breasts. In Chute No. 24, the water broke through at 11 o'clock on the morning of September 27 after a shot had been fired by William Watkins and Gint Hollywood, two competent miners, who were engaged in driving, the slant chute.
Both men managed to work their way amid the water and debris down the chute to a crosscut into and up No. 23 chute where they were entombed for 22 hours. The volume of water that broke through made its course from the old gangway, down No. 24 chute gutting it out as the water went along. The water broke down the pillars of coal between chutes Nos. 24 and 20. It violently eroded the No. 20 breast, which was enlarged three times its normal size. From there, the water and debris went down No. 20 chute into the gangway and then proceeded toward the mouth of the tunnel. In its course the water picked up timbers, rocks, coal and fine material, to close and compact the gangway from No. 19 chute to No. 25 chute. This distance is approximately 300 feet long.
Upon being notified of the accident, General Inside Superintendent W. G Whildin and Mine Inspector I.M. Davies immediately went into consultation and under their supervision, rescue parties and plans for re-opening the gangway were promptly formed and put into immediate operation. Three rescue parties were formed and definite work assigned to each. One party was to make a narrow opening on the top of the gangway, and another party was to open the airway or monkey gangway and the third party was to follow the first party into the mine for re-opening the gangway to its full width.
It is reported that 150 workers took part in the rescue efforts. The party, which was opening the gangway to its full width, started at the No. 3 chute and cleaned up such materials that were carried by the water in its course toward the tunnel mouth. The rescue party, which worked the upper lift of the gangway, started at chute No. 19 and opened a hole 3 by 4 feet along the south rib (Wall of the tunnel.) This work was tedious and slow due to the extreme difficulties which were encountered along the gangway. Between chutes No. 20 and 21 the progress was impeded by striking a steel mine car and truck that was caught in the flood-waters.
By means of an acetylene torch, enough of the mine car was cut away to permit the men to follow the north rib and proceed with the rescue work. At the time that the men were rescued, this rescue party had advanced very close to chute No. 25 where the mules were found amid the old timbers, rock, coal and other debris. The rescue party which advanced along the airway started at chute No. 19 and proceeded on to No. 20 where it was found that the pillars of coal had been washed away leaving No. 20 breast almost three times its normal size.
Three sets of timber, well planked, were used in crossing this breast and the rescue party advanced along this airway. The coal pillars between chutes Nos. 23 and 24 were badly damaged and extra precaution was used in opening this area. When reaching chute No. 26, black damp, CO2 was encountered and it became necessary to use a supply of compressed air to drive it out in order that the work might continue. Chute No. 26 was the first chute found opened and after driving the black damp gas out, the men explored the chute to its mouth and found the gangway filled with water. Two electric pumps were used in lowering this water and when sufficiently lowered, a raft was built and further explorations in the gangway began. On Oct. 3rd, John Humphries, the foreman at Foster's tunnel while on the raft, shouting as he went further into the mine, made contact with Elmer Herring.
Herring, who was the strongest of those imprisoned, came down the chute where the men had taken refuge. Herring yelled, "My God man, turn your light the other way, it is blinding me." Humphries asked Herring how were the other men? "All alive!" was Herrring's response. Subsequently, Herring led Humphries to the rest of the men huddled in Chute No. 27. At chute No. 27, the men were found all alive and in good physical condition. A temporary platform was built along the legs of the gangway timbers and each entombed man, after being trapped behind a wall of water, timber and loose coal for six days and five hours, was slid along this platform to chute No. 26.
They went up the chute and along the course which was opened by the rescuers to chute No. 20 [1/2]. Then, they were taken down the cute to the gangway where the company physician gave them hot coffee, and when necessary, a hypodermic injection to stimulate their weakened hearts.
The rescue was done in a very thorough manner. Each man was carried on a stretcher from No. 20 [1/2] chute to the ambulance at the tunnel's mouth. A slip of paper showing what treatment had been given each worker was given to the captain of the stretcher squad. This was delivered it to the physician of the Panther Valley Hospital, (Coaldale) where the men were taken to recuperate. After the rescue, all the debris that had fallen into the tunnel was hauled away, having filled 588 coal cars and 86 trucks. With the probability of more cave-ins, dangerous conditions from old timbers laying about in the mud and debris, black damp gas, and just the mere fact of further flooding, this rescue has to be considered as miraculous.
Much credit was due to Mine Inspector David J. Roderick of Hazleton, who responded promptly when asked to assist with the rescue work and also to all the employees of the coal company without whose noble efforts nothing could have been accomplished.
Another news ariticle
Looking back to September 27, 1915
BACK AGAIN BY BOB URBAN
'They're alive,They're all alive!'
First there was the shock.
ELEVEN MINERS ENTOMBED IN LEHIGH COAL AND NAVIGATION COMPANY MINE IN COALDALE, the local newspaper headline screamed.
Then, a day later, there was the apprehension.
FEARS EXPRESSED THAT ENTOMBED MEN MAY NOT BE REACHED ALIVE.
And finally the jubilation, the joy that only a miracle can bring.
ENTOMBED MINERS RESCUED AFTER BEING HELD PRISONERS BY FALL OF ROCK FOR SIX DAYS.
Monday, Sept. 27, 1915 was a beautiful Autumn morning. The leaves on the White Birch Trees that jutted from the coal banks had turned a bright yellow. Soon they would fall, and the stark coldness of Winter would blanket the borough of Coaldale.
The miners were back at work after spending Sunday worshiping with their families, and then spending a couple of hours after Mass or Services in the neighborhood bar waiting for a call to come home for a scrumptious Sunday dinner. The meal was the highlight of the week.
In Europe, there was the war to end all wars raging, one that was calling more and more of the town's young men every week.
Youngsters were back in school. Many of them had worked the coal fields during the summer months. Coal was crucial to the war effort. Some of them wouldn't stay in school much beyond the third or fourth grade. Helping put food on the table was more important than education.
White starched sheets, mixed with work clothes and undergarments, flapped in the breeze on the clothes lines in back yards throughout the town. Every Monday was wash day as sure as every Sunday was church day.
It was shortly after noon when the quiet of the early afternoon was shattered with the blaring of the colliery whistle at Foster's Tunnel, a mine located in the town's southwestern corner. It was a sound that brought terror to everyone. Whistling at this time of the day could only mean one thing - a cave in.
Eleven miners were trapped in the tunnel. Rescue efforts began immediately. What the result would be, nobody knew.
Two of those entombed, William "Kaska Bill" Watkins of Bloomingdale, and George "Gint" Hollywood of Coaldale, somehow had the presence of mind to follow a path of running water and were rescued on the second day near the surface.
But signs of life concerning the other nine were slim. There was no noise, no tapping on the walls of coal, no pleas for help.
But then a third miner, William "Kelly" Watkins of Nesquehoning walked unaided from the tunnel, and from newspaper accounts, he called his wife and told her he was all right, and he was coming home.
That left eight. And their fate was unknown.
My grandfather, Bill Kolosky, was 19-years-old on that fateful day. Soon Uncle Sam would call him into the Army and he would eventually become Coaldale's last living World War One veteran.
But for now Bill was a full-time coal miner, earning $3.33 a shift. And on September 27, 1915 he became one of the hundreds of rescuers who joined fellow miners, doctors, nurses, ambulance corps members, regular citizens, and undertakers at the Foster's Tunnel entrance.
During the rescue, Bill found time to write some notes on the rescue effort. I found them, along with the photograph that appear's with this column, in his attic after he died three years ago at the age of 101.
The rest of the rescue effort will be told in his words, 85 years later.
"Date of spill, 9/27/15.....11 men closed in. Time of spill 7:30 a.m. on a Monday.
"Rescued following Sunday first man carried out on a stretcher about 1:30 p.m. Others followed in rapid succession. All taken to Coaldale Hospital.
"Watkins and Hollywood in chute 24 escaped on second day. It was they who drilled into an old unmarked Gangway releasing thousands of gallons of water.
"Watkins and Hollywood ran down 24 chute (and) for 2 days wandered through old breasts finally coming out in 13 chute.
"Nine other men came down various chutes and congregated in one ground in chute 28.
"These men had nothing to eat (as) their lunch pails were hanging on gangway legs. Gangway was closed to root from (chute) 14 to 26.
"Monkey was cleaned by bucket brigade from 13 to 26. A raft took the men from (chute) 28 to 26. Then helped through monkey to (chute) 13 then safety.
"Casualties - four mules drowned.
"Bonner went with Murphy for the ride - stayed 7 days.
"Lohenitz ate 'sunshine' (wax used to light helmet lamps).
"All men were paid a consideration shift (but of this I have no proof). A consideration shift is 8 hours work pay for 8 hours - $3.33.
"I was a full time employee at that time, worked many hours in the rescue effort."
A huge crowd of onlookers, rescuers and spectators, greeted the men as they emerged from the mine on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, 1915. What they were witnessing was truly a miracle. None of the men were seriously hurt. They spent a few days in Coaldale Hospital recuperating, and, dressed in new suits, they posed for a photograph on the back steps of the hospital (see photo at right), and then went home to their families, and eventually back to the mines.
The late Casey Gildea, editor and publisher of the old Coaldale Observer, wrote a fitting ending to the saga the day following the rescue when he penned the words: "They survived hardships which cannot be pictured by tongue or pen."