The Knox Mine Disaster

Oct 19, 2022 0 comments

On January 22, 1959, miners at the River Slope Mine of the Knox Coal Company in Jenkins Township, Pennsylvania, were digging under the Susquehanna River in search of coal. They were in pursuit of a coal seam that seemed to angle upwards towards the riverbed.

Months earlier, the authorities had forbade the mining company from digging the vein as adequate surveying to determine the thickness of the rocks underneath the river was not carried out. But the company owners kept pushing the miners to dig closer and closer to the river bottom. The mine inspectors believed that there was still 35 feet of rocks to go, which was determined to be of sufficient thickness to hold the weight of the river. In reality, less than six feet of rock remained between the mine and the river bed. Some say, the rocks separating the miners from the Susquehanna River was lesser still—only 19 inches.

The whirlpool formed by the draining of the Susquehanna river into the underground mine.

At around 11:30 a.m. the raging Susquehanna river broke through the thin rock roof of the mine flooding the tunnels below with ice-cold water. The water draining into the mine created a massive whirlpool as if someone had pulled the plug of a bathtub drain. Sixty nine miners managed to escape, but twelve died. Among the escapees was Amedeo Pancotti, who climbed 50 foot up the abandoned Eagle Air Shaft and alerted rescuers, which led to the safe recovery of 33 men including Pancotti himself. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Another miner, Myron Thomas, led twenty-six miners to safety.

The same day the mine was breached, a team was mobilized to plug the hole between the river bottom and the mine. One of the railroad tracks nearby was cut and diverted towards the site of the accident. Then a diesel locomotive pushed over 50 large hopper cars into the whirlpool, followed by over 400 mine cars in an effort to clog the hole and stop the draining. But the water kept rushing in. More materials were dumped in the water, such as clay, coal and rocks, but the river barely stopped. Finally, the river was diverted around Wintermoot Island by building dams at both ends of the island. Once they pumped the water out between the dams they were able to begin sealing the hole. Tons of clay and rock were poured into the hole and a concrete cap was placed on top of the opening. Then they began pumping water out of the mine to look for the twelve missing miners, but no bodies were recovered.

Also Read: The Lake Peigneur Drilling Disaster

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.

The disaster marked the end of the anthracite coal mining industry in the northeast. Along with the Knox coal mine, nearby mines were forced to close due to permanent damage, resulting in the loss of 7,500 jobs. It also led to new safety laws that prohibited mining very close to bodies of water.

There are two memorials along the Susquehanna River today commemorating the victims of the tragedy. One memorial is located outside of the River Slope entrance and the other is located outside of the Eagle Shaft where the majority of the men escaped.

Railway cars dumped into the river to be sucked into the whirlpool, where they were expected to plug the hole.

After the mine was pumped dry, a mangle of wagon cars were seen inside the mine.

A photo from 2000 shows a hopper car washed upon the bank of the river.

# Knox Mine Disaster, Underground Miners
# Lauren Berger, Death Underground: The Knox Mine Disaster, Pennsylvania Center for the Book


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