The worst coalmine fire in US history will be indelibly fixed in the reader’s mind thanks to newcomer Tintori’s haunting story of the disaster.
It was supposed to be the safest mine in the country, a bituminous coal works in Cherry, Illinois, dug by a potpourri of nationalities who flocked to its opening in 1905. But a fire, started when a kerosene lantern ignited hay used to feed the mules that shuttled the coal from the tunnel face to the lifts, quickly engulfed many of the shafts, blocking exits as a trapped firestorm billowed great clouds of smoke. Of the 480 miners underground at the time, just over 200 got to the surface. Frantic efforts were made to reach those below, including a lift full of rescuers who were soon pulled back to the top in flames. Using an on-the-spot style, with close-fitting, ominous writing, Tintori details the action at the head of the mine—management wanted to seal it to kill the flames, while workers claimed that the owners cared more for property than for the miners—as well as what is clearly the heart of the story: the fate of 20 men still alive, trapped deep down, and having to move deeper still into the mine to avoid smoke and deadly black-damp gas. Incredibly, they kept makeshift journals, which Tintori uses to great effect: “15 after 2 A.M. Monday. Am still alive, We are cold, hungry, weak, sick and everything else.” The men will also soon be in pitch blackness as they douse their lamps to conserve breathable air. More incredibly, after eight days, they crawl through the dark and gas, over the rotting carcasses of the mules, to safety. Investigations into the incident helped bring about workers’ compensation and child labor laws.
Pungent and sharp, a terrible tale of loss that at least led toward future protections. (8-page photo insert)