History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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FRATERSVILLE EXPLOSION KILLED 184 MINERS IN ANDERSON COUNTY

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

    

     In this article we shall capture the dramatic scene of the Fratersville mine explosion in Anderson County, Tennessee, as it actually happened. The following are the heartfelt words of Philip Francis as he wrote them.

     In the year 1902, when the explosion occurred at Fraterville, causing the death of 184 miners; when the morning explosion happened, they wired for me to come at once and to bring experienced miners with me. This I did. When I arrived at the mine, all was confusion. A few bodies had been brought out. Men, women, and children were crying at the entrance of the mine. It was heart-rending to hear them. I met a Mr. Davis who had charge of a mine nearby. He said he wanted me to take charge of getting the bodies out. There was no map near, but he drew a plan of the mine on the ground for me to go by. He told me he was sick and could not help but the risk was a lingering fire in the mine and may cause another explosion that would destroy all resources in the mine. This did really happen a few months before; one in West Virginia and one in Wyoming, taking all the lives that were in the rescue party.

     Knowing this, I led the men into the mine, where bodies would be found nearly three miles underground. We had one safety lamp with us and it gave a very poor light. No open lamps were allowed for fear of coming in contact with gas. The ventilation was poor, as all batteries were blown down. We had to be cautious and careful and not go into gas. That would cause you to fall down and your breathing would soon cease unless someone picked you up and took you into purer air. Several of the rescuers had fallen down and were taken outside of the mine and laid in the blacksmith shop unconscious with the doctor working to restore them. The rescuers were not familiar with the effects of "black damp" in mines.

     I had charge of several men. I told them that there could not be a living miner in the mine and that we should go carefully and not get into foul air, and that I would go in front. I knew the effects of "black damp" and "white damp". There comes a shortness of breath and a feeling of weakness in the knees and elbows and stillness. In that state, you must gather up all your will power to know where you are and what you are doing and not turn yourself around too quickly or you may fall down and lose consciousness. In one damp, your light will not burn while in another damp, it burns and both are dangerous to life. No open lights were allowed in the rescue party. I carried my own safety lamp, but it gave a very poor light. The mine had penetrated into the mountain for nearly three miles at this time and I could not travel the main entry but by byways and airways and then had to travel in a stooping position. The height was less than four feet. This made traveling tiresome. Some of the men had no light, but followed along the best they could. Some were uneasy when told on the outside of the mine that some fire may be left in the old workings and that a second explosion may take place.

     Only a few months previous, a second explosion occurred in the Wyoming coal mines and also one in West Virginia, where all the miners lost their lives. All this I knew before I entered the mine. Some of the men only went part of the way in the mine. Their courage failed them. On the inside, you must forget the cries of women and children and also forget many dangers that surround you in the mine. You have a duty to perform to a fellow miner and to remove dead bodies to their relatives on the outside. The first bodies we came to were four. Two of them were on their knees in a praying position, the other two being partly on their side, just a few yards away, at the head of the entry. The men were sitting close to each other with their arms on their knees folded and their heads on their arms. In this position 17 of them had died. I lifted their heads up so I could see their faces to see if there could be any life there, but none was found.

     Some faces looked calm, while a few looked distorted. Our lights were dim and I did not try to identify any of them. Those men had rushed from another part of the mine for safety, but after the damp took their breath, they must have passed over many dead bodies to reach this part of the mine. I made arrangements to remove the bodies to the outside of the mine. This was difficult on account of no conveyance. It could only be done by partly carrying and dragging them through low places until we got them to a point where they were loaded into mining cars and then taken outside and then into a building where the doctors washed them and prepared them to send them to their homes or relatives.

     After removing 21 bodies from that section and as I was walking down the entry a short distance I came upon two bodies in a kneeling position. Their foreheads were touching the floor of the mine and they appeared as if they were alive. Placing my hand on the hip of the one nearest to me, I pushed slightly and the body fell over on it side. Looking closely at them I thought I knew them. They worked for me at Jellico. They were both young men. When we removed the bodies we concluded that they were part of the 17 men huddled together a short distance from where they died; it seemed that they had made an effort to escape. It was sad to think of young men dying in that manner--a slow, gasping death.

     Going toward the main entry, where the force of the explosion could be seen, we came upon a body terribly mangled. Then more bodies with several dead mules were lying around. Before the mules could be removed, their legs were chopped off, so that they could be taken outside, on account of the small places to go through. The men were now complaining. They felt sick and needed gloves on their hands to protect them while handling the dead bodies. They also wanted hot coffee. I sent word to the outside of the mine to supply these men with gloves and a galvanized wash tub. It was sent in almost full of hot coffee. This gave the rescuers more strength and the ventilation was getting better almost every hour. By replacing batteries and canvas curtains, the bodies were being removed to the outside rapidly.

     There were not many large falls of slate on the entrance, so the explosion was terrific at the main entrance. Heavy steel mining cars' axles were broken off in the cars' wheels. Loaded cars were hurled against the side of the entries and broken to pieces. No flesh could stand against such force. I worked three days in getting all the bodies out.

     The last evening, when I reached the outside of the mine, an old white haired man came running to me and asked me if we had found his grandson, who was a door tender on the main entry. He said he had a wide leather belt around his waist. The old man was heart-broken because, as yet we had not found the body of his boy. It took force to keep him from going into the mine. He could not sleep, watching everybody that brought out a body. He was broken with grief. Finally, part of a boy's body was brought out. It was his grandson. When clearing up the mine they found a boy's torso with the belt still around his body.

     The clothes that I wore in the mine, I had to destroy on account of the peculiar odor which could not be gotten rid of. The scene around the entrance of the mine could not be forgotten with 184 parts of many bodies that could be recognized by relatives.

(The preceding was taken from the book, "Seventy Years in The Coal Mines," as written by Philip Francis. Permission was given for these works by his Great-Grandson, Bailey Francis.)
 

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