Just one year after Nova Scotia’s Springhill community went into mourning for miners lost in its infamous ‘bump’, another bizarre mining disaster occurred in North America. This time the location was Jenkins Township in Pennsylvania. There was nothing sylvan about the River Slope Mine, an anthracite pit operated by the Knox Coal Company near the grimy coal-mining city of Pittston.
The eponymous river of the mine’s name was the mighty Susquehanna, the longest on America’s East Coast. In January 1959, management ordered miners to tunnel upwards towards the Susquehanna from existing workings below the river, reducing the thickness of rock separating the riverbed and mine to a recklessly dangerous 1.8 m (6 ft) – when 10.5 m (35 ft) was considered to be the minimum safety margin in such situations. The consequence of this folly was predictable, and catastrophic.
River water broke through into the workings and gushed down into the mine. Amazingly, although there were casualties among the 81 mining crew, the vast majority somehow managed to escape – 32 of them being led to safety by a resourceful miner called Amadeo Pancetti who was consequently awarded a Carnegie Medal, reserved for civilians who perform extraordinary acts of heroism.
Some 10 billion gallons of water cascaded into the mine, a process that created a large whirlpool in the Susquehanna River. Desperate attempts to plug the hole by depositing rail cars into this maelstrom were unsuccessful and the river eventually had to be diverted before the breach could be sealed. The tragedy led to the abandonment of deep coal mining in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. Ten people – including the mine superintendent and a senior official of the United Mine Workers Union – faced assorted charges, but only three went to prison for their negligent contribution to the Knox Mine Disaster.
When: January 22 1959
Where: Jenkins Township, Greater Pittston, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, USA
Death toll: 12 died (though no bodies were recovered) and 69 escaped.
You should know: The Knox mine disaster may have been the Pittston area’s most unusual mining disaster, but it wasn’t the worst by quite some way. In 1896 a massive explosion had caused a cave-in that killed 58 miners at the Newton Coal Company’s Twin Shaft Colliery.