The Knox Coal Mine Disaster: A Story of Corruption and Greed

Like the song made famous by country music legend, Loretta Lynn, I was a Coal Miner's Daughter. My Dad, Angelo Bruno, worked in the deep, dark, damp coal mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania from the time he was 15 years old. Although a dangerous way to earn a living, it supported our family.

Typical coal miners had very little schooling and few marketable skills. It was a backbreaking job, but it provided a paycheck. My dad told me stories when I was a young girl about working far beneath the earth's surface. It was riveting. I was curious about what the mines were like, his miner's helmet, the metal lunch pail my mom packed each morning, and the sooty clothing he brought home when his work day ended.

He left so early each morning that it was dark outside. He saw no daylight once he entered the mines, just the dim light afforded by the headlamp on his helmet. He told me about the large rats in the mines. They appeared whenever miners opened their lunch pails.

I asked him if he was afraid of the rats. He said the rats were actually friends of the miners. The rats warned the miner of impending danger. Changes generally affected them first. It's the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine used as a safety measure. When it stopped singing and keeled over, it was time to get out! Poisonous gases were present, but miners had just enough time to escape from the mine.

On January 22, 1959, I became very thankful for the mine rats. They saved my dad's life. I was just 14 years old, but I'll never forget that day. My dad arrived home early in the day, as white as a ghost. He told us the mines had flooded from the nearby Susquehanna River. Not all the miners survived. He was working in one of the veins of the mine when the rats started scampering through at breakneck speed.

The miners sensed this warning sign as a large scale, impending disaster and responded immediately. They dropped their tools and ran as fast as they could. My dad said he could hear the rush of water in his ears and knew then that every second counted. If they couldn't outrun the icy water surging behind them to find a way out, they would suffer hypothermia and drown. The powerful vortex of water would flush them away.

At approximately 11:20 a.m., the 81 miners who had entered the River Slope Mine in Port Griffith, near Pittston, Pa. didn't all make it to safety. My dad was one of 33 men who took the last elevator to leave the mines. The other 36 men found the Eagle Air Shaft with the help of a miner who worked as a surveyor and had a map. They had to use tools to dig through the unexpected debris in the air shaft until they saw a halo of light.

Grateful to finally see daylight, they still had a 50-foot wall to scale in order to get out. One man volunteered to scale the wall and get aid for the others. It was the only exit available to bring them out safely. The 12 missing men were never found, despite many attempts by divers to locate them and efforts to pump water out of the flooded mine. The surging waters entombed them forever.

This disaster marked the end of the anthracite coal mining industry in the northeast. The 10 billion gallons of water from the Susquehanna River that filled the mines resulted in a loss of 7,500 jobs. This was a huge economic loss to the Wyoming, Luzerne and Lackawanna Valleys where so many depended on coal mining for their family's survival. Worse, this disaster resulted from bad decisions involving corruption and greed.

The "Stop Line" between the river and the workers was 50 feet of rock. The Knox Coal Company later requested a 35-foot margin which government officials approved. Finally, under orders from company officials, workers were made to mine to within 19 inches upwards and under the riverbed. This was the point of no return. The river broke through the roof of the mine.

A whirlpool of rushing water kept pouring into the mine. After initial rescue efforts, the critical job was to mitigate the flooding. It took three days to stop the river waters and plug the 150 foot wide hole. They dumped over 50 huge coal hoppers, 400 one-ton coal cars, thousands of bales of hay, hundreds of railroad ties and tons of debris, culm, rocks and dirt. A dam was constructed above and below the flood site to divert the river waters. Eventually, the hole was capped off with concrete.

Months later, a grand jury found seven men guilty of involuntary manslaughter and three guilty of conspiracy. The illegal excavation underneath the river bottom exposed the corruption of the United Mine Workers officials, mine management and Mafia connections. Unfortunately, all the convictions were overturned on appeal. Bitter family members refer to this as the "Knox Mine Murders".

There was no assistance or support for the thousands of mine workers suddenly without jobs. They had to search for work in this economically depressed area or relocate their families elsewhere.Today, there is little to reflect the magnitude of this disaster other than a memorial stone located at the site. It's a small tribute to the men who died there.

If one looks closely, however, there is rust-colored water that continues to bubble up from the mine. Its evidence of the hole that allowed the whirlpool of icy cold river water to swallow up 12 men as it poured into the mine. It serves as a constant reminder of that tragic day. My strong, brave Dad said he'd never go back into a coal mine again. He kept his word.