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15.  

 

    Frank stood by the entrance and studied the faces of the waiting rescue team. They looked grim but determined. A moment later, the group parted as Cameron made his way to the front.

    "What's the situation, Cameron?"

    "Nineteen injured, three in serious condition, including Matthew Duncan. Twelve men have been sent to hospital; the others should be all right until we can get a doctor out here tomorrow."

    "Good. Thank you Cameron. You've done well for a greenhorn," he grinned and patted him on the shoulder.

    "Listen up, men," Frank continued, "there are still a dozen men trapped behind a wall of downed rock in that mine. We know nothing about their condition, whether they're alive or not. But I intend to get everyone of them out. They're our fellow workers and our neighbors. If they're alive, they're depending on us for help. If not, then we owe them a proper burial. Some of them have families, and they deserve to know what happened to their men. A miner never deserts another miner. That's the pride we have in our profession, the code we bring underground into the darkness of the earth. Now let's get started."

    And with those words, Frank turned and led his rescue teams into Montague Mine.

 

    They moved quickly to the site of the breakdown, several yards past the seven hundred foot marker. From that point on, progress became much slower. The working face had been extended about twelve hundred feet into the interior of the mountain, almost halfway to Bevens's half mile objective, the point where, in the future, it would intersect with the central elevator shaft. The unspoken question in everyone's mind was how far the wreckage continued. Digging through another five hundred feet could take them the better part of a month.

    For deployment, Isador had organized a rescue team of twenty-five excavators, men who would clear away the rubble, and twenty-five carpenters, men who would reinforce the entry as it was cleared. Additional men could be recruited on the site, but more would only get in the way. Next, he divided diggers and carpenters into teams of five men each.

    To Frank, it was a good plan, allowing teams to overlap and relieve each other, avoiding exhaustion. It was an excellent plan, he decided, but it was not good enough. It would simply take too long. If the men were still alive, they might need medical assistance; they would certainly need food and water. Unless they were able to reach them faster, the chances were poor that anyone would survive. The entryway was thirty feet wide. Five men digging at the same time would move forward at a tortoise pace. Instead, Frank reorganized the rescue: Isador would supervise twenty men excavating, and he would follow them with twenty carpenters shoring up the tunnel. At the back end, Cameron would be in charge of the remaining ten men hauling out the rubble in ore cars.

    So they began. At first they made good progress, reaching the eight hundred foot marker in three days, but as the work continued, the men were nearing the limit of their strength. It took them another week to reach nine hundred feet; a second week to move another fifty. At least another two hundred fifty feet remained before they would reach the working face. Everyone was exhausted including Frank, but he refused to sleep more than an hour or two a day, and Isador Cheek, adopting his example, remained awake just as long.   

    The next morning, the men woke late, most of them too tired to continue. Frank walked amongst them, talking briefly with each man, speaking words of encouragement. It would take more than friendly conversation, he realized. He would need a small miracle to get them moving again that day. What he received was not quite a miracle, but it would do very nicely in its place.

    At the beginning and end of each day, Frank would fire five shots in the entryway as a signal to survivors that help was on the way. It was a new system of communication that was being used by coal mine rescue teams. Not everyone was familiar with the practice; some mines embraced it, others did not, but Frank thought it worth the attempt; there was, after all, nothing to lose. Since no one had responded since he began the ritual, there was a growing conviction among the team that the miners at the face had perished.

    But this morning  there was a change in the daily routine. After Frank fired his shots, Cameron urged everyone to be quiet. He thought he heard something. Someone, beyond the pile of rubble lying before them, was tapping. It was a faint sound, to be sure, but it was unmistakable. Three taps followed by a pause, then it was repeated over and over. Bursting with excitement, Cameron leapt to his feet, "Do you hear that! Those are miners sending us a signal. They're alive!!"

    All the men rose and cheered. Frank fired more shots, and the tapping continued, for nearly an hour. No one needed more encouragement; exhaustion was forgotten. Everyone started digging, the reinforcement of the tunnel delayed indefinitely, the ore cars left where they stood. Frank recognized that they were taking a calculated but dangerous risk leaving the entry unsupported, but he was depending on the cave-in to have brought matters to a state of equilibrium: what would fall had fallen; from ruin stability rose.

    They continued working for another two hours at a feverish pitch, making great progress forward. Then everyone paused, and a hush fell over the group. An ore car had been unearthed, and laying next to it, the body of Richard Saunders. Frank looked over at Isador Cheek. His face had growth ashen, his eyes downcast, and most surprisingly of all, his eyes were swimming in tears. His attachment to Saunders could be explained later, Frank decided. For now, the solemnity of the moment must be broken. Saunders was dead, and that was a tragedy, but someone else was still alive.

    He unholstered his revolver and fired another series of five shots. The tapping resumed in reply. A group of men gently lifted Saunders's body and moved it carefully out of the way, resting his remains against a coal rib. Cameron removed his jacket and covered his face, an offering of solidarity and respect from someone new in the mines, someone who had never met Saunders. A moment of silence was observed, and then everyone returned to the task at hand, all of them working with more intensity than before.

    After an hour, they were only a hundred feet away when another body was found. It was Jeb Hines, a lad twenty years old who had worked in the mine for two months. But they were too close to linger now; the work went on. They would deal with the dead later; the living must be served first. And then Isador looked up and saw his brother Maurice smiling down on him through a space near the top of the rubble. They were through! Everyone dropped his tools and began removing the last few rocks by hand. And suddenly a sound began to grow, men shouting to one another, other men clapping, all of them embracing. An unrestrained hymn of victory spread amongst the celebrating miners. They had been rescued. Against all odds, the men were safe.

    'The men were alive, a little battered but alive. Herbert Wiggins had a broken tibia; Maurice Cheek, several cracked ribs; Hershel Wade had a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist. Everyone was dehydrated and starving; they had consumed the last of their food a week before; no one had water for the past two days. All the survivors were bruised and bore various lacerations, but only Saunders and Hines had lost their lives. A tragic event, but it could have been much worse.

    After the men were fed and given water, their injuries tended to as well as could be expected under the circumstances, the rescued and the rescuers began their long trek toward the entrance.

    The sunlight was blinding to Frank as he emerged from the portal; none of the men, neither those trapped nor those who came to find them, had been outside the mine in more than two weeks. A few men collapsed from exhaustion and spent emotion; others helped them toward the row of tents that Chung had pitched near the entrance, containing cots, a temporary kitchen, and a medical receiving station. Frank had sent a message that they were coming out. Two doctors from Morgantown were waiting to treat the injured men.

    Once his men were settled, Frank turned back to the entrance; they were bringing out the dead. A wagon was brought over and a group of bearers lifted the body of Jeb Hines into the back. Frank instructed the men to bring the body to the mortuary in Westover, a village south on the Monongahela about halfway between Morgantown and Fairmont. He would contact the family and pay for the funeral expenses.

    As the wagon left for the mouth of the valley, another solemn procession slowly made its way out from the mine: Steve Reynolds and Maurice Cheek were carrying the body of Richard Saunders on a litter, Hershel Wade and Isador Cheek walking on either side, each holding a hand of the fallen miner.

    Frank walked along with them for a short distance. "Take him to Westover with Hines. I'll pay for everything."

    "No, sir, Mr. Montague," Isador replied, "we'll take care of him. He's kin. We're taking Dick home to Charleston."

    Frank watched them go. He was soon joined by his foreman Herbert Wiggins, mounted on a mule, his leg in a cast. "I didn't know those men were related," Frank remarked.

    "More than related," Wiggins said, "the four of them were brothers; Wade and Saunders had different fathers; that accounts for the different surnames. It also explains why the Cheek boys came here looking for work. Their brothers told them about the mine. The other fellow, Steve Reynolds, is a cousin."

 


    Fourteen men had been rescued after two and a half weeks of clearing more than five hundred feet of breakdown. It was a momentous achievement and a landmark in the history of American coal mining, an industry still in its infancy. Frank was showered with laurels for his heroic efforts in rescuing the men; accolades arrived daily from mining communities on the Eastern Coast, from  Pennsylvania to North Carolina. But he was unable to share in the general celebration. Rather than exult in the men rescued, he mourned the men lost; and more than sorrow, he felt that he was responsible for their deaths. It was his decision, indeed his alone, to resume work in the mine after the fissure in the ceiling had been repaired. Perhaps, too, the plan devised by Wiggins, slow blasting of the face from a safe distance, would have been more successful than the course he chose, one proposed by Saunders but decided by himself. He knew, to the deepest recesses of his being, that he had reservations about sending the men back to work; the evidence was indisputable. He ordered Wiggins to wait an hour. To be certain. If there were any uncertainty at all, the mine should have been temporarily closed until all doubt had been dispelled.

    Then more bad news arrived. Two of the men seriously injured died in hospital, including Matthew Duncan, the man Frank had carried from the mine; the third had his leg amputated. He would never work in the mines again.

 

    Right after the men were brought out, a miner named Stockdale, an older man approaching retirement age, sidled up to Frank and voiced his opinion about the incident. "It's the mountain, you see. It's been cursed by God. Now It's angry at us for disturbing its sleep. The mountain is punishing us for violating its body. We should never have come into this valley."

     Frank turned on him in anger, "I never want to hear that kind of nonsense again. If I do, I'll have you run out of here on a split rail." Stockdale saved him the trouble; he vanished the next day.

    At the time, he thought that the old miner was hallucinating, spurting superstitious gibberish. Now he was less sure that Stockdale was delusional; maybe the mountain was punishing them after all; perhaps it was cursed by God. In any case, there was only one way to make amends. He would never send another miner to his death. He decided to permanently close the mine.

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