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According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), between 1839 and 1992, there were 716 "disasters" in the United States (involving five or more fatalities) and a total of 15,183 people killed. Most of the worst disasters took place in coal mines. In fact, of the five that took the lives of two hundred or more people, all five were coal mine disasters (the 1907 tragedy at Monongah, West Virginia, wiped out 362—the worst mining disaster in US history). Four of the five were caused by an explosion (or explosions, in the case of Monongah) but the third worst disaster (by only four deaths) was caused by fire. It took place in 1909 at the St. Paul Coal Company's mine in Cherry, Illinois.

Cherry, Illinois is a small village (current population around 500) about 140 miles (225 km) north of Springfield and 95 miles (153 km) south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. In 1905, the St. Paul Coal Company (owned by and the only customer of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad) began mining coal in Cherry. In 1909, it was producing some 300,000 tons a year, about 1500 tons a day.

Basic layout
The mine consisted of three veins located at different depths. The first was of no commercial use and was unused and blocked off with timber. The second was at a depth of 320 feet (97.5 m) and the third was 485 feet (148 m) from the surface. There were two shafts, a main one with two "cages" ("elevators"), to raise and lower men and other things (they counterweighted each other), and an "escape" shaft that was used as both an air shaft (there was a fan at the top for bringing fresh air into the mine, the main shaft functioning to complete the cycle) and had steps—as per law (access from the second to third vein was via ladder). The main cages operated between the second vein and the surface, while one, that was attached to them, operated between the second and third.

Saturday, 13 November 1909
In the early morning hours of that autumnal Saturday, 481 workers had descended into the mine. At 1:30 PM, a number had taken the cage up—had they not, the tragedy would have been far worse.

Though the mine normally had electric light, there had been a short circuit a month prior to the fire that had necessitated the use of kerosene lanterns for illumination. Of course, at the time, this didn't seem like a significant circumstance to anyone involved.

About once a day, hay was brought down into the mine to feed the sixty to seventy mules used to pull the mine cars. On that particular day, six bales had been lowered down and placed in a car on the second level and left near the escape shaft. It was inadvertantly left beneath one of the makeshift lamps. About 1:25 PM, it was noticed that the hay had caught fire. Generally speaking, compressed hay only catches fire with some difficulty—it was surmised that the reason it was able to after a relatively short time under the lamp was that kerosene was dripping onto and soaking into the hay. The air flow from the nearby shaft helped fan the flames.

Some of the timbers on the second level had caught fire and some boys were sent to get buckets of water to put it out (there was no sense that this was a serious accident at the time). When they were unable to put out the fire in the mine car, the decision was made to send it down to the third vein. There, they were able to use the hose from the mule stable to put out the fire. It was about 1:48 PM.

Miners on the third level had begun to notice the decline in air quality and smelled smoke. They tried to get a cage sent down but there was no response. Around that time several orders to start, stop, reverse, and run normally were given for the fan. The reversal of the fan caused the fire to rush up the air shaft—the escape shaft—cutting off the miners, before the fire stopped the fan completely.

As noted, the seriousness of the fire was not apparent to those involved (it was thought it would be quickly put out and work would resume). In fact, for five or ten minutes after they knew about it, they continued loading and raising out coal. The fire burned for almost forty-five minutes before any kind a concentrated effort to get out of the mine was made. By then it was nearly too late. Because they could not get the hose to the fire, a hose was lowered down. They couldn't get it connected to the water source and attempted attaching it to a water pipe to no avail.

The fire raged through the mine and by 3:30 to 4:00, it was clear escape was beginning to be less and less likely for the men.

Sacrifice
Something had to be done. Twelve men volunteered to be lowered down into the mine to attempt to help anyone they could find. Not all were even miners. Two were management, two worked with the animals, one worked the cage, one was a grocer, and one a clothier. A system of signals was devised so that they could communicate to those raising and lowering the cage.

The fire was not abating; the heat and smoke thick and oppressive. Six times they went down into the inferno. Six times they returned with comrades. And the fire burned closer and closer to the main shaft. The seventh time was their last.

When the cage was brought up, eight of the men were contorted on the floor of the cage, clothes still on fire. Four others were dead on top where they had attempted to climb to freedom.

There had been some confusion during that final trip. About fifteen minutes after it had been lowered, the rope began shaking (not a signal). After a bit, the engineer brought up the cage only to discover the rescuers deceased. Later, it was found that one of the few survivors had managed to get through the flames and heat and smoke to the cage, where he attempted to signal it to be lowered. There was no response and he had to flee back into the mine. It may have changed nothing for either the men in the cage or the (fortunate) man in the shaft.

Eight days in hell
That afternoon there was a group of twenty-two men who had been warned of the fire (had there been an adequate warning system set up, the casualties would have been far fewer). Unfortunately for them, by the time they had gathered together, their passage was blocked. After one of their number died, they turned back to get a "safe" distance away to wait for the fire to die out so they could escape. That night the main shaft was sealed off and the air shaft partially sealed off (to smother the fire).

The next morning, they made an attempt to find a way out but could not get to any exit. They were faced with the decision to wall themselves in, hoping for the air to clear so they could leave. On Sunday (14 November), rescue teams had begun to arrive, and the main shaft was reopened. Two men were sent down to the second vein to inspect the mine. They found no one at the time but were able to determine that had there been enough water and a good hose (the water system was inadequate and the hose was too big and cumbersome to be effective) the fire could have been controlled. Without such tools, the men were forced out of the mine. The mine was sealed back up.

The men underground had nothing to eat (other than shoe leather and tallow) and the only water was gotten by digging holes with their picks into which water, leaking from a seam, would collect. Not only was there little, but it was barely potable except for people desperately clinging to life. There had been a light on Saturday, when they became trapped. By Tuesday it was gone.

On Monday, the mine was reopened and fire fighters who had been brought in worked to put out the fire (it wasn't considered under control until Saturday—and was still not completely out). The week was spent taking temperatures and trying to put out the fire, while looking for bodies. The first ones were found Friday.

It was Saturday. Going into the eighth day of their imprisonment, since the fire, and the men were barely alive. There was no real appreciable hope for rescue. So after starving, drinking wretched water, struggling to breathe easy in the suffocating air and darkness, another decision had to be made. The men chose the four strongest (a relative measure) among them to break through the barrier that they had erected for protection. It was understood that this was their last chance, and failing meant death in the blackness of the mine.

Meanwhile, miners had been brought in to begin some serious work clearing away debris and bringing out bodies. By noon, that day, fifty dead men had been pulled out of the mine. They slowly made their way through the stench of burnt and decomposing bodies of men and mules, sometimes finding men whose positions appeared to be frozen in unanswered prayer.

The twenty-one survivors began making their way toward the "escape" shaft. A glimmer of hope in the darkness came when they began to notice that the air was clearer—even fresh. Finally the two groups met. Some of the men were unable even to walk to freedom and needed help. Regardless—there weren't supposed to be any survivors.

While twenty-one came back out of the mine, one of them was unable to recover from the ordeal and died the following day. Another had to remain in bed for a week.

Bodies
It wasn't long before the mine was sealed up again (25 November)—the fire had started up again. It remained sealed until 10 February 1910, almost three months after the accident. At that point they were certain the fire was over. Details of men went through the mine (as much as was possible), bringing out the dead. Among the remains were found "fans" some miners had constructed in an attempt to escape the poison gas. On one blade was written "All alive—2 p. m., 14"—that group had lasted at least a day.

By August, the bodies had been accounted for with a few missing and presumed trapped in caved in parts of the mine (the initial report also listed some that may not have been in the mine—the number "thought" to have been "lost" had been 268). The company decided to close the second vein and keep the third open (it had been the better producing and higher quality one in the first place).1

Aftermath
The tragedy left 607 dependents behind—of that number 160 were widows and 390 were children. Many of the families were already poor and the wages earned by the men (and in some cases, boys) was barely enough anyway. The outpouring of condolences, help, and relief came from all over the state (and even outside), including among the numerous groups, the Chicago Tribune, the United Mine Workers of America (and Illinois), and the Red Cross Society. Many people gave private donations or though organized groups.

While some of the aid came in the form of things other than money, the amount of monetary relief was in excess of $400,000. Additionally, the company settled for another $400,000 on top of donations in the general fund—some of it was given in rent and material goods and necessities (including coal). The final totals came to over $1700 per deceased worker.

As a result of the horrible events, fire and safety regulations were strengthened in mines. The State of Illinois also passed a liability act which eventually became the Workmen's' Compensation Act.

1I am unaware if the mine was reopened, as my primary source was written just prior to its anticipated reopening (supposedly October of 1910) and neither secondary source says whether it did or not.

(Sources: invaluable was findit.sos.state.il.us/cgi-bin/ida/dopieces.pl?recno=37; punam.k12.il.us/Cherry2.htm and www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/cherrymi.htm were also consulted; statistics were taken from www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/data/disall.html)

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