Thursday, July 25, 2013

The McDunn Mine Train Explosion


I received the following response to several of the Mothman related posts made on 'Phantoms and Monsters' in the Summer 2011. It was a challenge to read, but I attempted to keep the content as original as possible. Was this the Mothman appearing before an impending disaster?:

Hello sir - a friend referred me to your articles about strange occurrences in West Virginia. The Mothman encounters stirred memories of an incident that took place when I was a girl.

The strange incident took place near Powellton, WV in December 1934 - I was 8 years old. At the time, my father worked for Elkhorn-Piney Coal in McDunn. He and the other miners would take a train to the mine each day.

The day before Christmas Eve my father mentioned an unusual sighting he and the others on the train had while traveling back to Powellton from the mine that evening. As they looked out towards the east they noticed a very large bird flying above the trees. My father was a very simple man and didn't believe in any nonsense but this large bird really caught his attention. He described it as a freakish sized owl very dark in color. The sky was getting dark but they could still make out the large form. He said it also looked at the train as it flew over the trees. Nobody on the train could figure out what it was. The mere fact that my father even mentioned it suggested that it must have been an unusual sight.

My father was scheduled off from work for 3 days during the Christmas holiday. On December 27th, he was getting ready for work but said he felt poorly. My mother was concerned because he had a high fever and awful chills. She insisted he stay home and telephoned the doctor. My father was reluctant on staying home and put up a good argument but my mother was not going to back down. She put him to bed and waited for the doctor.

Well, we waited for hours until the telephone rang. The operator told my mother that the doctor was at McDunn - there had been a horrible train explosion. She couldn't talk but said that the doctor's wife asked her to contact us. My mother was pale when she told my father what had happened. I remember they both started praying and crying. For years both of them thought the large bird was an angel sent by God as a warning and that my father's life was saved for a reason.

My father never went back to the mine. It turned out that he had contracted polio though he was very lucky since he survived it with only a slight limp. We soon moved away to a small town in Kentucky where my father found the calling and become a Pentecostal preacher. He told his story of survival to anyone who would listen until the day he died.

I happened to read your stories while looking on the internet with my great-grandson. I always assumed my father saw something more divine. That's what he always believed. I'm not so sure now. Thank you sir, Emma

NOTE: The disaster that Emma was referring to was the locomotive boiler explosion at McDunn. On December 27, 1934, a boiler in a locomotive hauling mine workers at McDunn in Fayette County, WV exploded, resulting in the death of eighteen miners. Below is a newspaper account of the explosion...Lon

-----


Locomotive Boiler Explosion at McDunn

Beckley Post-Herald

December 28, 1934


*Sixteen Dead as Engine Of Mine Train Explodes

*Others May Die

*Boiler Of Locomotive Is Hurled Through Car Carrying Men To Fayette Mine

*Explosion Occurs As Train Reaches McDunn

*Victims Employes of Koppers Operation On Armstrong Creek

By Hamilton Faron
Associated Press Staff Writer


POWELLTON, Dec. 27 - (AP) - Mauled and torn beneath a locomotive boiler that hurtled high into the air after an explosion, 16 men are dead and 43 others in a hospital tonight - eight likely to die.

The huge boiler flew into the mist-filled air without warning as the men rode a work train to their jobs in the mountain top mine of the Elkhorn-Piney Coal company.

"It was a terrible noise - then the men screaming, crying and shouting," said Mrs. Earl Morris whose house beside the tracks was wrecked by the blast.

Her father, Steve Komas, sr., was killed; she and her two little boys barely escaped death when the top of the locomotive cab crashed into their bedroom.

The train, four wooden coaches, had made its last stop as it chugged up the mountain to the mine with nearly 350 men aboard.

It puffed into the little town of McDunn, miners talking and laughing as they waited for the locomotive to gain stream for the upward climb.

"There was a big explosion - the front of the locomotive was thrown into the coach," said Charles Kitchen, 16, badly injured.

Car Torn to Pieces

"Then a minute later there was another one and it tore our car to pieces."

The huge boiler flew high in the air, turned over and crashed on the top of the wooden car. It literally tore away the roof and one side, crumbling through the straw-matting seats.

Ambulances and private cars from the entire section, from all the mine towns scattered along Armstrong Creek, were pressed into service to carry the injured to a Montgomery hospital.

The mine foreman, W. B. Parks, was driving to the mine just behind the train. He took charge of rescue work - led miners in the other two cars, many of them cut and bruised, in efforts to rescue their fellows.

Four had been decapitated - all were burned, scalded and crushed beneath the heavy boiler.

Lunch pails, miners hats and lamps, shoes, even a letter or two from relatives and sweethearts were buried in the splintered remains of the car, splattered with blood.

Families Rush To Scene

Men, women and children gathered by the hundreds, some to aid in rescue work, others sobbing their grief at the loss of husbands, fathers and sons.

At the hospital the injured were given beds in beds in every available spot.

"None of them knows what happened," said Mrs. Francis W. Bromberg superintendent of the hospital. "They were all too dazed to have any definite ideas."

A few blocks away in Montgomery, bodies of 16 miners lay in an improvised morgue at an undertaker's - doors were placed on boxes to provid[e] slabs - in a long row while crowds of miners walked slowly by seeking friends and relatives.

There were the bodies of the engineer, William M. Blankenship, 52, and his fireman, Delmar L. Oxley, 35, Blankenship hurled over a house into shallow creek bed.

Cause Not Determined

The cause of the explosion will not be determined until Federal boiler inspectors make an examination. The boiler itself was moved just far enough from the railroad tracks to permit trains to pass on the private line of the Koppers Coal company.

The wrecked car was pushed into a ditch.

The inquiry will be directed by officials of the Koppers Company who hastened to the scene from main offices at Pittsburgh.

Until their arrival, funeral plans for the victims also are undetermined - many persons discussed possibilities of a group funeral service. All the men were workmates in the mine - neighbors in the little towns scattered along Armstrong Creek.

Those dead, all of whom lived in this vicinity and all of them miners with the exception of the engineer and fireman, were:

William Blankenship, the engineer.
Delmar L. Oxley, fireman.
Jess Persinger.
William Manus.
Thomas Craft.
Sam Runyon.
Everett Leach.
Steve Kozma, sr.
William Turner.
Pat Murphy.
Rome Walters.
John Lowe.
Henry McMillan.
Ed Howlett.
Ray Tarter.
James Hunter.

The hospital said these men are critically injured and may die:

Homer Cart, of Glencoe, Ohio.
Charles Hagen, Powellton.
O. V. Lytton, Deepwater, W. Va.
Jack Cole, Powellton.
Jim Giovanozzi, Powellton.
Theodore Toppex, Powellton.
Alexander Wood, Powellton.
A. J. Gearhart, Powellton.

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Explosion Sidelights

Powellton, Dec. 27 - (AP) - The scene of the locomotive explosion which killed 13 miners is a settlement of a dozen smoke-blackened dwellings which does not even have a telephone.

The community is typical of many that dot the vast bituminous coal region of Southern West Virginia, a rugged area of towering mountains and hills.

News of today's tragedy was sent from a telephone built in a box on a telephone pole about two miles away, the nearest one to the settlement.

The miners wore clothing grimy from the coal pits, many carried lunch pails and had waved good-byes to their families just a few minutes before. Feet cocked on opposite seats, some were enjoying a morning smoke and swapping yarns.

The impact of the blast was terrific and was heard for a mile or more. The startled miners were catapulted from their seats and sent sprawling to the floor. A second later scalding steam and water covered many.

State police provided a lane for automobiles taking the dead and injured away. Those who were not dead were taken to the hospital at Montgomery, a town of 2100 about 11 miles away. Friends and relatives of the workers, anxious to find fathers, brothers and husbands, came frantically by automobile and on foot. The roads were congested.

The little Coal Valley Hospital at Montgomery did not have enough beds to care for all the injured. Hurried calls were sent out for more, and they were brought in trucks from Charleston.

Every available automobile was pressed into service to carry the maimed. One youth, Eugene Flack, said he made four trips with injured to the hospital. He did not know whose car he was driving.

Clarence Foster, one of those who escaped injury, said: "The train blew plumb up."

Death swept all around one little family today and left them unscathed as 16 miners died in the explosion of a boiler on a train carrying them to work.

Earl Morris left his little mine town home this morning and for the first time in weeks decided to walk up the mountainside to the mine - ordinarily he would have boarded the train that stopped before his door.

A few moments later the heavy metal cab of the locomotive crashed through the roof of his home - passing within a foot of a bed where his wife and two baby sons were sleeping. "We'd just gone back to bed," she said.

The Morris boys and their little cousin, Iris Merritt, daughter of Lefty Merritt, former ballplayer in Wheeling, joined neighbor children playing with Christmas toys.

They apparently did not know of their narrow escape or that their grandfather, Steve Komas, was killed.

Christmas wreaths hung in splintered windows at McDunn today. The glass was blown out by the force of a blast that shattered a locomotive. Blinds were lowered in some of the dozen or so little one story company houses to shut out the chill winds.

An automobile placed high on brick blocks - stored for the winter, was shoved into a creek by the blast. A huge boulder was thrown against the side of a home.

Crowds of curious tramped miles up the narrow valley after traffic had been cut off to halt the stream of traffic that handicapped ambulances.

Coal Towns of West Virginia

Haunted West Virginia: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Mountain State (Haunted Series)

West Virginia Disasters: Mountain State Tragedies That Have Changed Our Lives

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