In tragedy, generosity remembered

(Editor’s note:  This story was written on the 50th anniversary of the Orient 2 explosion.  Since this story was written Jim Stewart and Jack Bigham have both passed away.)

By JIM MUIR

Fifty years ago, Jim Stewart was a 25-year-old coal miner working at the Orient 1 Mine near Orient.  His father, Silas, was working in the nearby Orient 2 Mine. On Dec. 21, 1951, just past 7:30 in the evening, while both were at work, an explosion of methane gas tore through Orient 2 Mine and took the lives of 119 coal miners. Silas Stewart was among the victims.

The elder Stewart was working on the last shift before a scheduled Christmas shutdown.

“I didn’t know about it until I had finished my shift,” Stewart said. “It didn’t matter who you talked to, they had either lost a relative, a neighbor or a friend. It affected everybody.”

In the wake of the tragedy, Stewart, who died a few years back, remembered the generosity of total strangers.

“Funds were established for the victims and their families and contributions poured in from across the United States. Those were pretty hard times anyway and there was just a great outpouring of help,” he said.

And Stewart remembers the despair of that Christmas.  “It was just a terrible, terrible time,” he said. “I remember that some of the funerals couldn’t be held because there wasn’t enough caskets for all the victims.

“My father was buried on Christmas Day, so there’s never been a Christmas go by that you don’t relive that.”

Jack Bigham of West City was just completing his first year of employment at Orient 2 and was underground when the explosion occurred. “I was in the 15th East section of the mine working with Roland Black. We hadn’t been in there very long and the power went off, so I called out to see what was wrong,” Bigham said.

“They wouldn’t tell us exactly what was wrong, they just told us to walk to the old bottom. I remember when we got to the bottom the power was still off and we had to walk the stairs out. We didn’t find out what was wrong until we got on top.”

Bigham, who retired after a 38-year career as a coal miner and is now deceased, went back to work at Orient 2 after it reopened and worked an additional eight years at the mine. He said it was difficult to go back.
“I think about it quite often — of course, even more at this time of the year when it’s near the anniversary,” Bigham said. “I know that I was just very lucky to be in another section of the mine that night.”

Curt Gunter, 57, of Benton, a 25-year veteran of the Southern Illinois coal industry, was 7 years old when his father, Harry “Tater” Gunter, was killed.

“There are things about it that are hazy, like I don’t remember my dad’s funeral at all,” Gunter said “But the thing that stands out in my mind the most is that, looking back through the eyes of a boy, it seemed like there was a big, black cloud just hanging over everything because so many people were involved. When you grow up with a memory like that at Christmas, well, you don’t ever forget it.”

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