Sirens. Most coal mines had them, or whistles. They were used to call the beginnings or ends of shifts. But there was another sound, the emergency siren, that could also be a death knell. For those living near mines the emergency siren was dreaded. It meant big trouble at the mine.
At 8:00 AM on January 26, 1903 the sirens blew at the Lankford-Harris mine in West Terre Haute. The mine was located on the southeast corner of the Darwin and National roads. As its sound echoed into the homes around West Terre Haute it carried with it a cold chill that would immediately strike the hearts of miners and their families. Trouble, big trouble, at the mine. There was an instant reckoning of who was on the shift and not. Wild thoughts about how serious it might be. Explosion, fire, cave-in? Who might already be dead? Where is my husband, my son, my father? It could also be heard by those miners underground working the coal face. Are we trapped, what is going on, will I ever see the sky again?
On that January morning an inexperienced “boss weighman” was in the tipple of the Lankford-Harris mine. The tipple was a building where the coal was “tipped” into the train cars. The weighman placed a bucket of black jack (a lubricating substance for gears) on the stove and went about his duties, forgetting that the bucket was bubbling away. It soon boiled over starting a fire that took hold in the mine timbers and raced underground. There were 20 men below.
When the engineer, one James Smith, became aware of the fire he started a fan to push air into the mine. Calls were sent to Terre Haute requesting firefighters and word spread to local doctors that they were needed at the mine. As would be rescuers arrived they had to push through a crowd of maddened families waiting on the fate of loved ones. Strong men had to hold some back who gave in to the instinct to rush through the flames to save their relatives.
Below, the first to see the fire were two mule drivers, Virgil Beck and Charles Graves, who were waiting to load full coal cars into the cage. Graves climbed onto the cage lowered by engineer Smith while Beck ran down the shaft shouting warnings to the others. He then ran to climb the “bunting” between the two shafts, emerging to the surface from the flames below. Below them lay the two dead bank mules, blocking the passage.
Fire department hoses soon had water gushing into the mine in attempts to put out the fire. Soon Leon Westfall became the first rescuer to go down into the mine. Climbing down the same bunting that Graves has earlier ascended, he reported back that though there was stifling smoke there was enough air to support the rescuers. He was followed down by his brother Bert. A makeshift windlass was constructed and William Broadhurst (his forbearers were the town’s first mine operators) was lowered to help in the search. Their first order of business was to push the dead mules away from the passage.
In the passageway they found the bodies of five stricken miners. At first there seemed little hope they were alive, but the light from their lamps showed that all but one of the men was breathing. Using the rope and windlass they were hoisted to the surface. As each body emerged the eyes of the waiting families squinted to see if the sight held hope or tragedy. The rescuers moved deeper into the mine, fighting smoke, listening for signs of life. They found 14 miners gathered behind a trap door 700 feet into the shaft. Their lives had been saved by the canniness of a veteran miner. Some said it was Peter Jackquish, others John Peters. Whichever it was, the experienced miner believed they were in no immediate danger if they could escape deadly fumes. To go out into the smoke-filled shaft before the rescuers reached them would be a deadly proposition, so he forced them to sit tight. Forced was sometimes the operative word. When the occasional panic-stricken miner attempted to push his way through the door a pick was brandished to force him back. After nearly two hours the rescue party reached them and they were led to safety.
Meanwhile, above ground, doctors tended to the stricken and families numbly waited news. When the last man was brought out there was a pause to think. Of the five miners most seriously overcome, two were taken to their homes for treatment, two to St. Anthony’s Hospital, and one to the morgue at Ryan’s Funeral Home.
They could not be sure of the victim’s identity until morgue attendants were able to wash off the blackened grime that obscured his face. It was only then that Mrs. James Wesmer of Terre Haute learned that the husband she had seen off the work in the mine that morning was dead.
That night 19 miners’ families celebrated their dodging of the bullet and wondered when the next would come.
That night and the next morning, coal miners all over West Terre Haute went back to their shifts in the mines.