Coal mining has to be an occupation that is not only physically demanding, but rife with hazards. In the United States alone, coal mining has historically been considered a dangerous occupation, with over one hundred thousand coal miners killed in accidents in the twentieth century, alone. Even more sobering is the statistic that ninety percent of that century's fatalities occurred in the first fifty years.
How can this procedure go wrong? Let me count the ways. Besides vehicle collisions or mine wall failures, there is the possibility of roof failure, gas poisoning, coal dust explosions or gas explosions.
When something did go wrong, it often could cost the lives of many. Take just one year in that century as an example. In 1944, from a total 453, 937 miners employed in the entire United States, nearly thirteen hundred of them died on the job. Anyone studying the bigger picture of their family history in those coal mining states of Ohio, Kentucky or West Virginia—as our family had in researching my husband's maternal line in Perry County, Ohio—will recall the newspaper headlines and accompanying photographs of somber-faced family members awaiting news of the fate of loved ones trapped down below after yet another mining tragedy.
One such example was the March, 1944, disaster at the number four mine of the Katherine Coal Company in Shinnston, West Virginia. Opened only six months prior to the incident, the mine employed about one hundred fifty men.
What was described as "a violent underground blaze" caused, in turn, "a blast so terrific that it tore up a surface area of half an acre" in the early morning hours of March 25, 1944. It all started with a spark from a machine cable, which ignited a wall of coal.
The front page of the March 26 edition of The Charleston Gazette described the unfolding story. At the point at which the explosion occurred,
One of the dead men—no one yet knows who—was piloting a motor into the mine. Tiny pieces of the motor were found, but no trace of the motorman.
Other factors complicated any hope of rescue attempts. For one, the ventilating system for the mine "was completely wrecked," while a makeshift replacement, hastily set up, was no match against danger of further methane gas leaks. A greater problem than that, though, was
the fact that the explosion, in tearing up the earth, left a giant hole through which air rushed in to feed the underground flames.
It was reckoned that the explosion "eventually reached every section of the mine." Because of the now out-of-control situation, the state Mines Chief and a special state inspector-at-large were called in, as well as representatives from the United States bureau of mines. Crack safety teams and rescue crews from surrounding areas—even from neighboring states—arrived to render aid.
Still, contingencies led to the decision that the only thing left to do was to "push the broken earth back into the hole and seal up the enormous air vent." It was estimated that it would take five to six weeks for the flames to be fully extinguished, at which time crews could be sent in to recover the bodies.
It was reported that sixteen men had lost their lives on the job that day at the number four mine of the Katherine Coal Company—about ten percent of the entire work force assigned to that location.
It was interesting to note, in reading the account of the disaster, that one of the employees mentioned in the article was named John Hogue. Whether that Mine Superintendent was the same as the John Hogue whose life story we've been following, it is hard to say. But I'd consider it a possibility.
The outcome for Hogue, unlike those sixteen others, was different but unexpected. According to The Charleston Gazette,
Mine Superintendent John Hogue narrowly escaped with his life, through the lucky break that he had returned to the toolhouse for some equipment just as the blast let go. Hogue had been in the mine superintending salvage efforts.
Hogue was standing with John Crock and John Earnest near a stove when the explosion occurred. All were thrown about thirty feet but escaped with bruises.
If this was, indeed, the same John Hogue as the coal mining engineer we know, it wouldn't have been the first time he had narrowly escaped with his life.