Man crafts folk opera recounting 1963 mine disaster
HAZLETON, Pa. (AP) — Nearly 55 years ago Jim Broyles’ father was serving his country with the Navy on the Japanese island, Okinawa.
The military family traveled around a lot and the yearlong assignment in Asia brought the stateside family members to Allentown, where they could be closer to relatives.
It was around that time, in August 1963, that the story of three miners trapped underground in Sheppton and the subsequent rescue of two of them captured the world’s attention.
Broyles was young but aware of the tense situation unfolding so close to his mother’s hometown of Oneida, where his grandmother, Anna Barna, still lived.
Then 13 years old, though, other things were in the forefront of his mind.
Not only was he anticipating his father’s safe return, but he was waiting for the chance to cash in the piggy bank of coins he collected for a ticket to Disneyland in California. His adventure was close at hand once his dad came home.
Little did he know, 55 years later, he’d embark on another great adventure that would take him back to his family’s roots in Pennsylvania, eager and excited.
Broyles, now 67 and of Denver, Colorado, wanted to expand his hobby of singer/songwriter, writing songs around a central theme. An idea came to him in the spring of 2016 — the miraculous story of the Sheppton Mine Disaster he remembered from his childhood had so many storytelling facets to work with.
The world was thrilled with it back then and there was something operatic about the story itself, Broyles said.
He began reading literature on the disaster and wrote a song or two, then he researched more, tweaking what he had after taking critiques from friends and anyone else who would listen.
He got rid of some songs that didn’t quite work and others that did were added to the body of work he calls a folk opera under the title “Davey Do You See the Light?” It contains about 14 songs that accompany an epic poem.
Broyles said the work functions like a radio play. It’s a poem complemented by music, both of which he created, he explained.
The final cut of the work will be presented at the Swallow Hill Music Association in Denver on Jan. 25, 2019. Broyles will play guitar while three others will perform with him on banjo, mandolin and bass.
He hopes the Denver show will open up opportunities to tell the story at other venues.
The disaster was such a part of the area’s identity and now it’s probably in danger of fading away in time, said Broyles, who hopes his re-telling of the story will help preserve the past.
The project brought Broyles back to his family’s roots in the Hazleton area July 24 when he stayed at his grandmother’s homestead, the house he hadn’t visited since her funeral in 1977. There he was able to delve deeper into the stories of David Fellin and Henry “Hank” Throne, who survived being trapped in the belly of a mine at the Oneida Slope No. 2 for two weeks, and that of Louis Bova, who never was found.
The men were cut off from the outside world Aug. 13, 1963, and five days later contact was made with Fellin and Throne. By Aug. 26 they were brought back into the world from the dark bowels of the mine.
After their rescue, both men spoke of hallucinations they had while trapped inside the mine — not just any hallucinations, but the same ones.
Three tiny specks of light appeared in the darkness in front of them, as chronicled by Ed Conrad, retired Standard-Speaker reporter, and those lights expanded, eventually filling the entire chamber with blue light. The chamber in which they were trapped then expanded and both men were able to walk around. Fellin said he saw Pope John XXIII, who had died weeks prior to the mine collapse.
That’s the part of the story Broyles wanted to learn more about for his work.
He reached out to locals who could tell him more and met with Fellin’s niece, Carol Zielinski, owner of Faberge Follies Dance ’n Tumble. He also reviewed interviews and documents from Conrad, who spoke with Fellin extensively, and visited the monument in Sheppton.
News coverage of the disaster in the 1960s focused on the highly skilled and innovative rescue of the men, and it was well-deserved, Broyles said. But, the spiritual or supernatural part of the story Throne and Fellin detailed about their journey underground got pushed aside by reporters other than Conrad, who wrote about it extensively.
Some of Broyles’ story is factual and some is fictional adaptation but the essential story is there, he said. The title song, “Davey Do You See the Light?,” is what he pictures Throne said to Fellin while trapped.
“Davey do you hear the sound coming through the ground? Coming through the ground to take us home again.”
“We might be leaving here tomorrow. We’ll bid this place goodbye. They’ll send us down a lifeline and we’ll rise up to the sky.”
It’s at that moment in Broyles’ work that the blue light appears.
The song is a way of saying, “do you see the same thing that I see,” Broyles said.
Fellin answers: “There’s no question about this thing you see for the very same appears to me.” The walls of the earth that cramped around them then disappear in Broyles’ work, revealing high ceilings, just as they did in the vision.
The hallucinations may have been controversial back in 1963 but then and still today, they offer “marvelous artistic potential,” Broyles said.
At first Broyles dwelled on whether what the men claimed to see was true. Fellin met with Dr. Elizabeth Kübler Ross, an expert on life after death, and she believed him, he said. The brain working through fear is certainly understandable in Throne and Fellin’s positions but less understandable is why both had the same hallucinations, according to Broyles.
Lately, though, Broyles said he’s realized that it’s irrelevant if the visions were true or spawned by fear, starvation and a lack of oxygen — to Fellin and Throne they were real.
“It was true to them,” he said, and as such, part of their story — part of the story Broyles captured.
“It’s an incredible story, even if it’s a hallucination. It’s such a detailed hallucination that you want to go deeper into it,” Broyles said.
What happened is compelling, from the rescue to their visions, whether miracle, skill or luck, Broyles said.
You can watch Jim Broyles perform the title folk song with accompanying musicians Rahel-Liis Aasrand and Maggie Wing, recorded Aug. 15, 2016 at the Rocky Mountain Song School, at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wanxtcXgDf8
Information from: Standard-Speaker, http://www.standardspeaker.com