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                                                                              by Ed Kassak

(Note: This interview with Joe Laigon, a survivor of the 1915 Foster’s Tunnel mining disaster in Coaldale, was conducted in 1964 by Coaldale native Ed Kassak for an oral presentation about Coaldale history that Ed made to his English Class at Bullis Prep School in Silver Spring, MD. Coaldale baby-boomers will remember Ed’s role as a member of the Coaldale Football Tigers’ undefeated (11-0) 1962 team.)

On September 27, 1915, Foster’s Tunnel caved in, trapping 11 miners underground at the west end of Coaldale. Joe Laigon, the last remaining survivor of that disaster, is now 69 years old and living on West Phillips Street in Coaldale where he operates a popular candy store with his wife.

On that fateful day in 1915, Joe was 23 years old and an apprentice miner working with Mike Gottardi, when water had burst through a section of the tunnel and immediately trapped Joe and 10 of his fellow miners. The youngest of the trapped miners, Door Boy Bonner, was just 17 years old at the time.

Two other men on Joe’s shift, William Watkins and Gint Hollywood, were fortunate to make a successful escape from the tunnel’s dark, murky depths, but Joe and the others were stuck. He learned later that Watkins and Hollywood, with their hands torn and bleeding, had climbed up a 300 foot long passageway to safety.

The event happened around 11:20am. Joe said, “There was no explosion. We were 1100 feet in the tunnel in a chute along the vein when we heard a big rush of water and air. The sudden rush of air seemed to compress itself in one section of the mine and prevented it from flooding and luckily provided us with enough oxygen to breath.”

Within minutes, Joe’s workmates met and started to devise a plan of escape. A mule raced by in the gangway and disappeared. They figured the mule had found an escape route, but Joe said, “Before we could follow the mule, the water began to rise and blocked off the possible escape route.”

For the next several hours, Joe related, “We searched for another way to escape.” But, they had to wait because on one side they had 100 feet of solid rock, and on the other side there could have been more water or a pocket of gas.

Hours dragged by. Joe and his mates huddled in a section above the flooding water. “We had bad headaches,” Joe said, “and we tried to drink sulphur water to ease our throats, but doing that made us terribly sick.”

“We burnt our lamps for awhile,” Joe remembered, “but when we felt that no quick escape was possible, we snuffed them out to save the air.”
Joe continued, “We spoke very little. We had no idea of the hours or the days, but we heard the blasting of rescue squads, which gave us hope. Even when the black damp began to appear, making it impossible to light a match - we knew help would come.”

It did — seven days after the cave-in.

Although the rescue squad had heard no tapping from the trapped miners all week, they continued digging, and at 3:30pm the following Sunday afternoon, the announcement was made to the waiting citizens of Coaldale: “MEN FOUND ALIVE!”

Amidst tears and sobs, Joe and the other 10 survivors were carried from the Foster’s Tunnel mine on stretchers. Half starved, they waved to their families and friends before going to Coaldale State Hospital, where they eventually were able to tell their story to reporters, inspectors, and mine officials.

As the only living survivor today, Joe contends that many of the others’ lives were probably shortened due to the week-long exposure and starvation under the ground.

When Joe was asked about the recent talk about possibly using Foster’s Tunnel as a fallout shelter, he slowly shook his head. For him the tunnel offers little inducement even if it were converted to a shelter. He said he spent enough hours there to last two lifetimes.