Living History: In 1924, a Utah mine disaster took a terrible toll
Whenever I hear about the March 8, 1924, explosions in Castle Gate mine No. 2, it's the death toll 172 names that gets to me. These men American and immigrant miners symbolized the strength, character and international ethnicity of Utah's early coal-mining industry.
Those men were killed during a violent, 22-minute conflagration, leaving wives without husbands, children with no fathers and countless parents outliving their sons.
Eighty-nine years later, a reading of their names still cuts to the core.
Joe Ambrosia. Basil Gittins. Louis Gialitakis. Fukuzo Inouye. Samuel Rush Jacoby. John Palioudakis. Ben Mascaro. Aetou Manoukarakis. John McClusky. James Murphy. John Thorpe. Thomas Trow.
Utah Fuel Company's Castle Gate mine No. 2 opened in 1912 in Carbon County's Willow Creek Canyon, and its coal was considered the finest in the region.
During World War I, Utah's coal production was aggressive. Jobs were plentiful. By the 1920s, though, its production had tempered. In February 1924 at the Castle Gate mines, single workingmen were temporarily laid off. Even then it was a fortunate married miner (or one with dependents) who could land an eight-hour shift.
On that cold, fatal Saturday morning, nearly an hour after the miners had begun working, a explosion ripped through the mine with such force that wreckage was spewed nearly half a mile across the canyon. Within minutes, a second explosion took out the wall of the mine's fan house. Twenty minutes later, a third explosion sliced the mine's steel doors from its concrete frame.
Inside, the mine entrance and main tunnel caved in. Rail lines twisted. Roof supports snapped. Ventilation controls (concrete stoppings and overcasts) were destroyed, and the air and escape shafts filled with gas.
One hundred feet away in the company's office, the miners' metal identification checks were blown off the racks. A number of miners were working in the "first dip entries," others were a mile from the entryway, and more were deep within the tunnels. All were entombed.
Dom Bertoglio. Mario Cappelleti. Mike Dacemos. Frank Fieldsted. Martin Kimball. Joseph Kirby Jr.
According to the U.S. Mine Rescue Association, the gas and coal dust explosions "started as a methane ignition" attributed to the inadequate watering down of the previous shift's stirred-up coal dust and the open flame "of a fire boss's cap lamp" that he used to relight a "key-locked flame safety lamp" that had gone out.
Rescue crews, composed of courageous volunteers from the mining district, came out en force. Mine rescue cars were sent from Dawson and Butte, Mont. Medical teams arrived from Salt Lake City. Government officials were called in. The Red Cross marshaled aid to the devastated families. While friends cooked and sewed mourning clothes, the Knights of Phythias hall was converted into a morgue.
Tony Malax. William Morrison. Tony Spendall. Stylianos Spyridakis
Raging fires, debris and poisonous gases impeded rescue efforts. Several "helmetmen" nearly succumbed to the deadly gases. George Wilson, who led the rescue crew from Standardville, died from asphyxiation when his nosepiece separated from his helmet.
Temperatures dropped, but the heroic rescuers refused to stop until the last charred, dismembered or broken and nearly unrecognizable body was removed from the mine. It took nine days.
Orson Ungricht. Kanakis Virganelakis. S.C. Yum. Edwin Jones. George Kappas. John Slovenski. Mell Seely. Thomas Rees. Andrew Komfosh.
Grieving widows and children were suddenly faced not only with loss but economic uncertainty those from Greece, Italy, Wales and Japan struggled with the language and customs of their new homeland. Gov. Charles R. Mabey raised $132,445 to supplement their monthly compensation (about $64) paid by the mine company. The state hired social worker Annie D. Palmer, who visited and helped assess ongoing needs.
It was a struggle, but the women survived. They made do, raised kids, relocated, remarried, found employment, started businesses but they never forgot.
James Preano. Alfred Rice, Jr. Frank Piccolo.
More names. All lost. One bitter March.
Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at email@example.com. Sources: See Stu Beitler's online copy, "The Castle Gate, UT Coal Mine Disaster, Mar 1924," for a complete list of names, and Marianne Fraser's "One Long Day That Went on Forever."