The Disaster of April 30, 1927

How the Explosion Happened

On April 27, the mechanization of the Federal No. 3 mine, in conjunction with mistakes by the miners on duty, the negligence of the mine operators, and natural causes, created the series of events that ended in the destruction of approximately 111 miners. Early in the morning, the fireboss in charge of declaring the mine safe allowed the miners to enter the mine and begin work. By about 3:30 pm, all but about 100 or so miners on duty had gone home for a Saturday afternoon to themselves. Deep inside the mine, at the working face furthest from the entrance, an electric locomotive was on its way toward a loaded mine car to extract it from the room when it when a small piece of timber lying across the track caused it to stall. The locomotive had several frayed and worn-out wires exposed to the air, and as it stalled, the sparks from the exposed wires ignited firedamp that had accumulated near the ceiling of the room.

Outside of the Mine
The Federal No. 3 tipple after the explosion, 1927

The spark and flames alerted the nearby miners and foreman who tried to run but were overcome by the expanding fire ball. Approximately 4000 feet of methane gas and air mixture provided the initial fuel for the explosion. The mine had not been covered in rock dust in accordance with the mine-inspector’s direction in the month prior, so the explosion of gas found a new propellant in the coal dust covering nearly every surface of the mine. The explosion moved outward from the room, hurling mine cars down the passageways destroying men and machinery alike. The force of the explosion was strong enough to bend and disfigure the massive metal experimental loading machines. The “toppings,” or the foot of coal sitting above the lip of loaded mine cars, was sent flying through the shafts as lethal projectiles, accompanied by electric water pumps torn from their mounts and sent tumbling. The violence of the explosion sent debris from the mouth of the mine into the tipple and out to a distance of over 600 feet. At least eighty-six men died immediately within the mine, and another six died when the explosion ripped apart the tipple.

In the minutes following the explosion, several groups of men found themselves trapped within the mine. A few barricaded themselves in a pump room in an attempt to protect themselves from fires started by the explosion, but they died from exposure to the “afterdamp.” Some of the trapped miners left messages written to their loved ones on whatever they could get their hands on, including a lunch pail and scraps of cement-bag paper. While several miners were able to walk out of the mine themselves, rescue operations were mounted immediately.

Rescue Efforts and Labor Strife

Rescue Gear
"Man equipped with Draeger Oxygen Mask,"
Lewis Hines (LOC), 1933
Rescue teams at the Federal No. 3 explosion
used oxygen masks to this.

Rescue teams arrived at the site within an hour or two of the explosion. In the first forty-eight hours, they had only penetrated 3,500 feet into the shaft from the entrance. Robert Lambie, the Chief of the State Department of Mines, called the mine a “‘volcano,’” as he feared a second explosion. Thomas Jarrett, the deputy mine inspector who had last visited the mine in January 1927 arrived with Lambie at the site of the disaster. As they surveyed the damage, Lambie began talking with the family members who had gathered near the entrance to the valley. He asked for their patience as they waited for news of their loved ones. The American Red, Cross, the Salvation Army, the West Virginia National Guard, Boy Scouts, and West Virginia Department of Public Safety all rallied to help out at the site. Of course, the bitterness held by those miners who had been on strike at the time of the explosion hung in the air. The Pittsburgh Sun published a cartoon of a skeleton miner carrying a reaping tool and a pick axe walking into the mine at Fairmont, with the title, “One Miner Who Hasn’t Gone Out On Strike.” It was a harsh message to send in the aftermath of such a tragedy.

Although there were rumors that the strikers may have caused the explosion, these allegations were eventually dismissed. It took three days before the rescue leaders determined that they needed to seal the south section of the mine where the fire was still burning before they could safely continue their search. They began to lose hope that any of the entombed miners were still alive. Although someone claimed to hear tapping on the pipe carrying the high voltage lines into the mine, the state officials were not able to hear any response to their banging on the pipes.

In the Days After the Disaster

On May 3, Henry S. Lyons, C.A.G. Wood, and J.J. McSweeny, the vice presidents of the New England Fuel and Transportation company, arrived on the scene to make their apologies to the families of the victims, but made no formal statements while they waited for the final count. Mr. Wood remained on the site with the general superintendent, J. W. Devison. However, they were soon joined by the vice president of Massachusetts Gas, P.M. Snyder. Their official report claimed that there were ninety-one men inside the mine and six men in the tipple at the time of the explosion. Rescue workers reported that they recovered ninety-one bodies. Almost a month later, the recovery team finished evacuating bodies from the depths of the mine. Due to the scale of the operation, and the reluctance of the mining company to overestimate the number of bodies, it is certain that the number is more likely to be higher than ninety-one. On June 1, 1927, the United Mine Workers Journal published the death messages found by the rescuers, which indicated that at least three men had lived entombed in the mine before they died of affixation. The bodies of Henry Russell and his companions were among the last to be
recovered from the mine. Henry wrote to his wife, “Dear wife: still alive but air is getting bad. Oh, how I love you, Mary.” There is no way to know for certain if the number of bodies is correct.

Henry Russel's Last Words
The last words of Henry Russel, one of the miners trapped in Federal No. 3 mine on April 30, 1927

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the explosion, the West Virginia Department of Mines performed an investigation into the cause of the explosion. According to Coal Age, a courtroom investigation was scheduled for June 8, 1927. The courtroom transcript cannot be located, but the editors at Coal Age remark that, “Many mine executives have been like those at Everettville, W.Va: they have believed the mine was so wet that the coal dust could not explode, but evidence shows that a wet mine can have a bad dust explosion.” It was concluded that a storage battery locomotive operating on the farthest working face of the mine ignited an accumulation of methane gas while approximately 260 miners were working on-site, either in the mine or near the opening. Rock-dusting may have prevented this occurrence. The disaster forced the company to shut down an open section of the mine due the fire that continued to burn for an unknown number of years. The mine was idle for two months after the explosion as they made repairs to the interior structure, and the damaged tipple.

Disaster Diagram
Diagram from the Disaster Report of the Bureau of Mines

Selected Bibliography and Acknowledgements