Remembering The Centralia Mine Disaster On this day in 1947, a coal mine in Centralia, Ill., exploded, killing 111 miners. We take a look back at how the disaster affected the community.
NPR logo Remembering The Centralia Mine Disaster

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW.

President Obama told reporters in the Netherlands today that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine, not Russia. He warned Russian President Putin that invading more of Ukraine would be a, quote, "bad choice for Putin to make." President Obama was asked at a news conference what he thinks now about an assertion made by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a 2012 debate that Russia was the United States' greatest geopolitical adversary.

Back then, President Obama responded by saying that the 1980s were calling. They wanted their foreign policy back. Today, he said the U.S. has many challenges, but Russia is not its greatest adversary.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.

HOBSON: President Obama speaking today in the Netherlands. And tomorrow on the show, we will talk about all of this with former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Right now we want to take a look back. On March 25, 1947, workers at mine no. 5 in Centralia, Illinois were just ending their shift when a huge explosion shook the earth and killed 111 coal miners. Rescuers found a message scrawled on a wall: Look in everybody's pockets. We all have notes. Give them to our wives.

The president of the United Mine Workers Union, John L. Lewis, told Congress that the secretary of the interior, Julius Krug, was to blame because he wasn't enforcing mine safety rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

JOHN LEWIS: I said that these men at Centralia died through the criminal negligence of J.A. Krug. And I reiterate that statement now.

YOUNG: It is a day worth remembering. Let's do that with Robert Hartley, co-author of "Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters." He joins us from Arizona State University in Phoenix. So, Robert, 111 dead in Centralia. Where does that place it among coal mine disasters?

ROBERT HARTLEY: Well, there are all kinds of lists. I think the best way to think of it is that in coal mine disasters, after 1940, for example, the Centralia episode was ranked third in the number of deaths. In the earlier part of the 20th century, the death tolls were much higher. The West Frankfort, Illinois mine disaster in 1951, four years after Centralia, killed 119. After that, regulations and safety rules and all have cut the number of deaths, although there, as you know, are still a number of episodes.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, take us back. What happened at mine no. 5 that day?

HARTLEY: Their shift had stopped. They were on their way to the elevators to take them above ground when the explosion occurred. It happened rapidly and spread throughout the tunnels of the mine so rapidly that the people who were closest had very little time. The final decision, I suppose, about what caused the explosion may never really know, except that in a mine, in many mines, coal dust accumulates. It is quite combustible. Exactly what ignited it, I don't think they ever concluded that.

YOUNG: Well, but a state inspector had issued a warning. Why didn't anyone listen to him?

HARTLEY: Starting in, oh, the early 1940s, a state inspector, Driscoll Scanlan, had called attention to the accumulation of coal dust. All of the mine inspectors at that time were political appointees. But he was very independent. And they, generally speaking, ignored him. The bureaucrats and the mine owners were very close. The United Mine Workers miners in, say, in Centralia, for example, they knew what the situation was. They knew what the conditions were. They complained as well.

YOUNG: Well, let's listen to more of the testimony John L. Lewis gave before Congress after the Centralia explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

LEWIS: If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe the security for their families if they die.

YOUNG: Just - you feel it in your chest. Remind people who he was.

HARTLEY: He was, of course, the long-time president of the United Mine Workers. Actually, he was an Illinoisan. At that particular time, he and the president of the United States, Harry Truman, were constantly fighting. Lewis was at odds with the federal government and the federal inspection system. But he was - he came to the issue at Centralia after all the damage was done. And frankly, nobody had much impact on federal laws as a result of this.

There was an investigation by a subcommittee of senators, three senators, who came to Centralia for a week, held hearings there, went back, wrote a long lengthy report on what they had found or thought they had found. And there were no changes in federal laws as a result of Centralia.

YOUNG: Hmm. Well, as you said, though, there have been changes since. But what happened to Centralia? What was the impact of this disaster on that town?

HARTLEY: It was devastating. Small town with a heavy immigrant population, partly because of the mines, they - people who were working in the mines then were the sons and grandsons of immigrant workers who had come there in the 19th century to work the mines. Families, for the most part, the women - there were no working women in those days. They stayed home and took care of the children.

YOUNG: And worked.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: And worked at home.

HARTLEY: And worked with the children. You bet they did. And so when this happened, it took away the husband and the sons and the grandsons and the uncles. And so I think the greatest impact was on the women and the children who survived. And some of the stories, quite frankly, of the women who went to work, or they went back - they went to school to try to find a way to make a good living. It was heartwarming to listen to the stories of the women who made something of their lives, and their children and grandchildren talk about them to this day.

YOUNG: Ninety-eight widows and 78 children left without fathers after the Centralia explosion. And you say they talk about them today. Quite something. Robert Hartley is co-author with David Kenny of "Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters," the Centralia on March 25, 1947. Robert, Bob, thanks so much.

HARTLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DYING MINER")

WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) Dear sisters and brothers, goodbye. Dear mother and father, goodbye. My fingers are weak and I cannot write. Goodbye, Centralia, goodbye.

YOUNG: And after the Centralia disaster, folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote this song, "The Dying Miner," about those notes on the wall. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

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