By JIM MUIR
Christmas traditionally is a time for wide-eyed children, exchanging gifts and festive family get-togethers. For many, though, it also is a time that serves as a grim reminder of the worst tragedy in the history of Franklin County.
On Friday, Dec. 21, 1951, at about 7:35 p.m. a violent explosion ripped through Orient 2 Mine, located near West Frankfort, claiming the lives of 119 coal miners. The tragedy occurred on the last shift prior to a scheduled Christmas shutdown. News of the tragedy spread quickly from town to town and hundreds of people converged on the mine to check on loved ones and friends. A basketball game was under way at Central Junior High School in West Frankfort, when the public address announcer asked that Dr. Barnett report to Orient 2 Mine, No. 4 Portal, because “there had been a catastrophe.”
There were about 2,000 people at the game, and nearly half of them left with Dr. Barnett. News of the tragedy and massive loss of life drew nationwide attention. Both Time Magazine and Life Magazine featured accounts of the explosion and newspapers from throughout the country sent reporters to Franklin County to cover the holiday tragedy.
Gov. Adlai Stevenson was at the mine the following day along with volunteers from the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Those who arrived at the Orient 2 Mine immediately after reports of the explosion surfaced had no way of knowing that they would be a part of history and folklore that would be handed down from family to family for decades to come.
A Christmas Miracle
Rescue workers began entering the mine within hours of the explosion, clearing gas and searching for survivors. What they met, however, was the grim reminder about the perils of mining coal and the force of methane-fed coal mine explosions. Locomotives weighing 10 tons were tossed about, timbers a foot thick were snapped like twigs and railroad ties were torn from beneath the rails.
Rescue workers began recovering bodies of the 120 missing men shortly after midnight on Dec. 22. As the hours passed, and body after body was recovered from the mine, it became apparent that it would take a miracle for anybody to survive the explosion and the gas and smoke that resulted. In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve — 56 hours after the explosion — that miracle happened.
Benton resident Cecil Sanders was found on top of a “fall” barely clinging to life. Authorities theorized that Sanders, by climbing on top of the rock fall, miraculously found a pocket of air that sustained him until rescue workers arrived.
Sanders told authorities later that he was with a group of five men (the other four died) when they actually heard the explosion. He said the men tried to get out of the mine but were driven back by smoke and gas. Sander said later he had resigned himself to the fact that he was going to die, even scribbling a note to his wife and children on the back of a cough drop box. “May the good Lord bless and keep you, Dear wife and kids,” Sanders wrote. “Meet me in Heaven.”
Sanders, who died only a few years ago, reported in a book, “Our Christmas Disaster,” that rescue workers were amazed that he survived.
“My God, there’s a man alive,” Sanders later recalled were the first words he heard as he slipped in and out of consciousness. “They didn’t seem to think it was true,” Sanders said. “When they got to me I couldn’t tell who they were because they all had on gas masks. Rescue workers came back in a few minutes with a stretcher, gave me oxygen and carried me out of the mine. There’s no question it was a miracle.”
A Christmas Never Forgotten
Rescue workers and funeral directors were faced with a grim task during the 1951 Christmas holiday season. Something had to be done with the scores of bodies that were brought up from the mine. And funeral homes throughout Franklin County — where 99 of the 119 fatally injured miners lived — would have to conduct multiple funerals; in some instances, six or eight per day.
A temporary morgue was set up at Central Junior High School where row after row of bodies lined the gymnasium floor. Brattice cloth, normally used to direct the flow of air in coal mine entries, covered the bodies. The usual joyous Christmas season turned into a bleak pilgrimage for families from throughout Southern Illinois as they faced the task of identifying the charred remains of the miners.
The last body was removed from the mine on Christmas night, completing the work of the rescue and recovery. In all, 252 men were underground at Orient 2 when the explosion took place — 119 died and 133 miners in unaffected areas escaped unhurt.
‘Christmas ended that night …’
Nearly every person in Franklin County was affected, either directly or indirectly, by the disaster. For some of those who lost loved ones in the Orient 2 explosion, the events of that Christmas are just as vivid now as they were in 1951.
Perhaps no story evolved from the tragedy that was more poignant than that of Geneva (Hines) Smith, the 26-year-old mother of two small children, who lost her husband, Robert “Rink” Hines in the explosion. Smith, who later remarried, still brushes away a tear when she recalls the last words of her young husband before he left for work on that fateful Friday afternoon.
“He held our daughter Joann, she was 3 months old, and he put his face against hers and he said, ‘she looks just like me … doesn’t she?” Smith recalled. “Only a few hours later his sister came to the door and said there had been an explosion … and then we learned later that he’d been killed. The last thing I remember was how happy he was holding his daughter.”
Smith said a cruel irony involving the funeral also played out after her husband’s death.
“There was so many funerals that they had them early in the morning and all day until in the evening,” Smith remembered. “The only time we could have his funeral was at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. That was our fifth wedding anniversary and we got married at 8 p.m. … I’ll never forget that.”
Lyle Eubanks, of Mulkeytown, remembers distinctly his last conversation with his father Clarence, prior to the elder Eubank’s departure for work.
“He walked into the kitchen and got his bucket and then walked back into the living room and sat down on the couch,” Eubanks said. “He talked about it being the last shift prior to the Christmas shutdown and said if he didn’t need the money so bad he wouldn’t go to work that night — that’s the last time I talked to him.”
Eubanks said he identified his father’s body at the morgue.
“There was just row after row of bodies and they were covered with brattice cloth,” he recalled. “You just can’t imagine how horrible of a scene it was. I’ll never, ever forget what that looked like.”
Eubanks said the holiday season for his family and all of Franklin County came to an abrupt halt on Dec. 21, 1951.
“People took down their Christmas trees and outside ornaments after the explosion. It was almost like they didn’t want to be reminded that it was Christmas. Someone came to our house and took the tree, ornaments and all, and put it out behind a building in back of our house,” Eubanks said. ” Christmas in 1951, well, … Christmas ended that night.”