Knox Mine Disaster Remembered By Miners’ Descendants
JENKINS TWP. — Twelve men did not make it out alive after the Susquehanna River crashed through the River Slope Mine in Port Griffith 59 years ago today.
The Knox Mine Disaster, named for the Knox Coal Company, which owned the mine, effectively ended the anthracite coal industry in the Wyoming Valley.
On Sunday, family members of the miners who died, as well as the 69 men who survived, joined in the annual commemoration of the Jan. 22, 1959 disaster. The first stop was the historical marker outside the Baloga Funeral Home.
Joe Francik was among the dozens who gathered for the brief ceremony, led by Bob Wolensky, who has co-authored books on the Knox Mine Disaster and the history of the coal region in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Francik was 10 years old the day the river flooded the mine where his father worked. A relative picked him up at school and took him to a clifftop overlooking the river, he said. They watched the frantic efforts to plug a hole in the bottom of the Susquehanna, where a powerful whirlpool poured water into the flooded mine.
For hours, Francik thought his father was dead.
Later that day, Francik learned his father was alive. He said he will never forget seeing his dad in a hospital, his face still covered in mud and debris. He said his father “did not talk much” throughout his life about what happened.
Anita Ogin and her daughter, Monica Ogin, attended the commemoration to honor Eugene Ostrowski, their father and grandfather, who died in the disaster.
Anita Ogin was 15 months old when her father died. She got to know him through photographs and memories shared by friends and relatives, she said. She recalled a day when she was about 19, when she saw her father in a video and “just broke down.”
The second part of the commemoration took place at the site of the mine disaster, following a hike in the snow along railroad tracks near the river.
Francik and other men in the group pointed to a nearby cliff where they stood and watched on the day the mine flooded, when they were boys.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Tom Stegura. “I saw the water go down the hole …”
Stegura’s uncle, Tony Remus, made it out of the mine safely. Stegura saw him that night.
“That was the first time I ever saw my uncle drink hard liquor,” he said.
The whirlpool Stegura spoke of poured billions of gallons of water into the mine before the hole in the riverbed was plugged, through extraordinary efforts that included running railroad cars into the river, to form a dam.
“No one knew how to stop a hole in a river,” Wolensky said.
Even the Army Corps of Engineers had never seen “the bottom fall out of a river,” he said.
The disaster might have claimed more lives if not for the bravery of miners who guided men to safety and sought help for those still trapped, Wolensky said.
One of the heroes of the day was Myron Thomas, a mine foreman who led 24 men through rising icy water for hours until they reached safety.
His granddaughter, Rebecca Thomas Palmer, on Sunday grew emotional as she recalled hearing her grandfather talk about their ordeal.
Myron Thomas said he kept reciting the 23rd Psalm to himself as he searched for a way to escape the mine, Rebecca Thomas said. She stood near the spot where her grandfather emerged from the mine’s Eagle Shaft, the last remaining way out.
Ten people were indicted in the aftermath of the disaster, caused at least in part by orders from coal company managers to dig illegally under the Susquehanna, too close to the riverbed.
Sunday’s commemoration was part of a series of events to mark Anthracite Mining History Month. For a schedule of events, visit http://ahfdn.org/mining-history-month-schedule-of-events-january-2018/
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