It was warm for early March as the evening shift reported for work at the Viking mine. It was a Thursday. March 2, 1961. Temperatures in the 60s may have given some fleeting thoughts of an early Spring. Others might have been thinking ahead to the weekend. The new Elvis movie, G.I. Blues, was playing at the Garfield, and there was a Tony Curtis film at the Grand. Maybe a fight with their wives was still gnawing at them, or how far the next paycheck would go? One thought they all likely had pushed deep into their minds was that, being a miner, this might just be the day they would not walk back out of the dark pits in which they worked. Some may have taken one last deep breath redolent of the Wabash River just 200 yards away.
The Viking had opened in 1948. The coal that the miners blasted, hauled and loaded was sent by conveyor belt to feed the ravenous maw of the power plant nearby. Though a bit “gassy” it was considered a relatively safe mine, with only one fatality in its 13 years. It was already a sort of relic though. Where there had once been 35 deep-shaft mines in the Vigo County area, there were now only two.
It must be understood that mines, especially deep-shaft mines, were often a catacombs of underground rooms. Abandoned, played-out room or shafts often lay dormant next to active ones. In the old shafts methane gas, sometimes called “green devil gas” by some miners could seep and build-up. The wall, floors, ceilings that separate these rooms can be thin and prone to crumbling, thus making them an ongoing hazard that might collapse and trap miners. That sort of thing happened in the mines of West Terre Haute in the past. Or, if miners are lucky, the walls can be a fortress against a collapse or disaster in another shaft.
The miners were divided into two crews. Twenty-two sent into one shaft, the other 22 into another. Into one shaft went Burl and Jack Gummere, father and son miners from Terre Haute. Jack normally worked the third shift, but requested a change when another second shift miner failed to show. And Joseph Sanquenetti of Rosedale, whose brother John was a trained member of one of the mine rescue teams. And James L. Norton from West Terre Haute, an army vet who, with wife Lyda, had a small daughter named Julia Ann. Also in the crew was David Hale, who had had lost his father 30 years earlier in a mine explosion. They began their work.
Their work proceeded normally for hours. Then, at about 7:45 on that March evening, the first omen appeared when an air gauge chart showed a drop. Supervisors rang the phones down in the shaft. No one answered.
There had been an explosion nearly two and a half miles down the shaft. The shock wave from the blast hurtled northward, a flash fire rose and quickly flamed out. The explosion tore tons and tons of coal and earth from their banks, twisting metal and filling open spaces. Amid the debris lay 22 miners, alive seconds before, now dead. So fast and violent had been the explosion that nearly all lay where they had stood a second before. A few may have crawled a step or two away, but that was all.
Upon realizing what happened the emergency calls went out. Ambulances and doctors were called, mine rescue teams summoned. As always happened in mine disasters word spread quickly and terrified, fearful families rushed to the mine. Whose fathers, sons or brothers had survived, whose did not? The news was grim.
John Sanquenetti went in with a rescue team, knowing his brother might be in there. He had been working in the other shaft and did not know what happened until he and the others miners were ordered to return to the surface. “It was like a tomb,” he wrote later, “Everything was charred and covered with coal dust.” The explosion tossed around coal moles, ventilator shafts and shuttle cars around like they were so much confetti. It did not take long for the realization that to sink in that they would find only the dead.
And so began the soul-torturing process of making the mine give up its dead. One by one the victims were brought out. So charred and twisted the bodies that only one miner was recognizable by sight. For the others, it would be the belt buckles or wallets or other personal items that would speak their name for them.
Finally, around midnight, the last body was brought out. Twenty-two bodies in all. The Viking Mine explosion took its unwanted, grim place as the second worst mining disaster in Indiana history. The grieving began.
The next week would bring investigations, incriminations, sorrow.
And 22 funerals which would be attended by 22 widows and 29 now fatherless children and many, many other mourners.
Among the mourners were the survivors who had to stop and ponder the meaning of chance or fate. Who asked the question of why. Men like Linton Fisher of Clinton who was off work that week on doctor’s orders. Or Robert Forbes of Shelburn who was alive because a spat with his wife had caused him to miss work. Or Norman Price of West Terre Haute who was shifted away from the fatal shaft into the other.
Families were left to try to figure out how to live through the future they always hoped would never come. Among them was Rose Ann McGaughy who told how her husband Max had only recently returned to work. She had been working part time to help save money for a new house for the family, which included a son and daughter, but “Now the plans mean nothing.”