By national standards, the City Mine disaster in Sullivan was small.

In 1924, the year before 51 men died in the underground explosion on Sullivan’s east side, 174 coal miners were killed in a March explosion in Castle Gate, Utah. The month after that, 115 more died in an explosion and fire in Benwood, W.Va.

In the early part of the 20th century, two ferocious coal mine accidents killed more than 600 men: in 1917 in Monongah, W.Va., where 361 miners died, and in 1913 in Dawson, N.M., where 263 perished.

In Indiana, the second-worst accident was Dec. 9, 1926, in the Francisco No. 2 mine in Francisco. Thirty-seven men died. Terre Haute has seen two disasters in its nearby mines, the Spring Hill explosion on April 30, 1947, in which eight miners perished, and the most recent coal-mining tragedy in the state, the Viking Mine explosion on March 2, 1961, when 22 were killed.

While mining now is overwhelmingly safer than it was in 1925, the occupation remains one of the most dangerous in the nation. In Indiana, only farming has a higher likelihood of major injury or death.

When a deep-mining accident does occur these days, as in the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine works in West Virginia, which killed 12 miners and seriously injured one, the impact registers across the country. People with mining in their family histories as well as the public in general are compelled by such an event.

Something about the act of descending into the dark bowels of the earth to make a living triggers a primitive anxiety in most human beings. Watching as families wait for hours — or days — hoping their loved ones will be brought out alive from a ruptured mine usually wrenches all but the hardest heart.

Invariably, in the aftermath of such an incident, questions about mine safety proliferate.

A perusal of the comprehensive bi-weekly Mine Safety and Health News bulletin reveals that most mining deaths occur one or two at a time in construction-type accidents, such as bulldozer rollovers, truck wrecks or drownings.

In 2005, 22 miners died in the United States. The Sago disaster pushed the number of fatalities thus far in 2006 to 19.

In the most recent newsletter, Ellen Smith, Mine Safety and Health News editor, provides some context for the Sago explosion, focusing on that mine’s higher-than-average, non-fatal accident rate leading up to the deadly incident.

While the 2005 national average was 6.54 non-fatal mine accidents per 200,000 manhours worked, Sago’s was 17.04, according to Smith. In 2004, while the national average was 5.66, Sago’s was 15.90.

Two other mines owned by Sago’s parent company also had high accident rates for 2005, one of 28.37 per 200,000 manhours, the other of 27.97.

In the meantime, the newsletter reports, Sago was issued 205 citations or orders by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for violations last year. Those included 96 “significant and substantial” citations, which mean “likely to cause injury or death.”

In the same issue of the newsletter, an insurance executive whose company still provides coverage for U.S. mine operators, a rarity, took the long view.

“There seems to be a growing perception that coal mine disasters are on the increase and that this is an exceptional high-risk industry with inadequate internal and external [regulatory] controls,” wrote Rob Brooks, vice president for risk management and loss control for Acordia, Mid-Atlantic Region.

“In fact,” said Brooks, “MSHA disaster data of events with five or more fatalities dating back to 1970 show us that we can expect an accident of the scale of the Sago explosion every other year. If we take data from 1986 to the present, a large mine disaster can be expected to occur every four years. Compare this to 50 years ago, when the industry was averaging 1.5 mine disasters per year.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

Died Feb. 20, 1925, in the City Mine:

Harry Anderson

George Baird

Ross Boothe

James Boyles

John Brown

James Burris

Cecil Carty

John Collins

Frank Cottingham

Mike Cusack

Russell Dowdy

Pat J. Dunning

Ellis Eaton

James Eller

Robert Freeman

Blaine Gibson

Harry Garby

Frank Hawhee

Pearl Hawhee

Clinton Higginbotham

R.L. Jackson

Oliver Keagy

Everett Keller

Earl Laughlin

Emile Lecocq

Florence Lecocq

Charles McCammon

Dwight McClanahan

Frank Mason

Perry Maxwell

Everett Metcalf

James Miller

W.H. Moberly

George Neal

Dan Purcell

Earl Robertson

Lex Robertson

John Rowe

Claude Sanders

Charles Sheedy

Dave Smith

Frank Smith

John Solomon

Arthur C. Sullivan

Gilbert Taylor

John Thomas

Claude E. Treader

Silas Wagner

Philip Walters

Wayne Walters

John A. Ward

Sources: Sullivan County Public Library, Sullivan County Historical Society and monument to miners in Sullivan County Park and Lake. Note: There are variations in period documents on the spellings of some names.

Indiana Coal Mine Disasters Recorded

Date Mine Name Location Lives Lost

11-21-1878 Sullivan Sullivan 8

12-26-1896 Oswald Princeton 7

3-22-1905 Oswald Princeton 9

1-14-1907 Deering No. 7 Clinton 7

3-20-1909 Sunnyside Evansville 6

12-03-1919 No. 3 Jacksonville 6

5-03-1920 Submarine Clinton 5

2-20-1925 City Sullivan 51

12-09-1926 Francisco No. 2 Francisco 37

1-28-1931 Little Betty Dugger 28

7-15-1937 Baker Sullivan 20

5-22-1941 Panhandle No. 2 Bicknell 14

4-30-1947 Spring Hill Terre Haute 8

7-27-1948 King Princeton 13

3-02-1961 Viking Mine Terre Haute 22

*Note: All the disasters were the result of explosions.

Source: Sullivan Library

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