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If you look at the list of the worst coal mine disasters in U.S. history, three of them happened in Illinois, where I grew up.
The one we are featuring today on Here & Now took place in Centralia on March 25, 1947.
An explosion killed 111 miners at Mine No. 5 there. Four years later — and just about 40 miles away from Centralia — 119 miners were killed in an explosion at Orient Mine No. 2 in West Frankfort. But the worst coal mine disaster in Illinois history happened on November 13, 1909 in Cherry. 259 miners, men and boys, died in a fire at the mine that day.
Only the explosions in coal mines in Monongah, West Virginia, in 1907 and in Dawson, New Mexico, in 1913 killed more. 362 men died in Monongah. 263 died in Dawson.
The explosion in in 1947 Centralia left dozens of widows and fatherless children.
“When this happened, it took away the husbands and the sons and the grandsons and the uncles,” Robert Hartley, co-author of “Death Underground: The Centralia And West Frankfort Mine Disasters, said. “I think the long term impact was on the women and the children who survived. Some of the stories of the women who went to work, or they went to school to try to find a way to make a good living. It was heartwarming to listen to the stories of the women who made something of their lives and their children and their grandchildren talk about them to this day.”
When I was working on the story about the Centralia mine explosion, I came across some newspaper stories from the time.
Here’s part of an AP story from March 27, 1947:
A heavy snow fell over the grim setting as rescue squads, after working through the early morning hours, brought the second group of dead miners from 540 feet below the ground. The disaster happened on a Tuesday, and it was Saturday before the last 31 bodies were removed from the mine. Rescue workers were surprised to find a message scrawled on the rock walls of the mine that read: “Look in everybody’s pockets. We all have notes. Give them to our wives.”
Woody Guthrie wrote a song about what happened in Centralia 67 years ago. It’s called “The Dying Miner.” He sings:
Dear sisters and brothers goodbye,
Dear mother and father goodbye.
My fingers are weak and I cannot write,
Goodbye Centralia, goodbye.