On the rainy morning of Monday, April 28, 1924, two explosions at the coal mine operated by the Wheeling Steel & Iron Corporation in Benwood took the lives of 119 men, most of them recent immigrants. There were no survivors. It remains the third worst mining disaster in the history of West Virginia, a state plagued by numerous coal mining accidents.
The first explosion occurred in a pocket of methane gas at approximately 7:05 AM – about 25 minutes after the men had entered the mine. The second explosion –the one that probably killed most of the miners – was probably the result of coal dust being ignited by the methane explosion. The fire permeated the entire poorly ventilated mine. Many of the miners who weren’t crushed by falling rock and debris from the force of the violent explosion were burned to death. But most were probably killed by “afterdamp,” a deadly cocktail of toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide, caused by the fire. A large number of dead miners were found with articles of clothing wrapped around their heads in failed attempts to block the afterdamp.
The rescue effort was slowed by a collapsed roof and fallen rock and debris as well as the presence of afterdamp. Blockage near the main entrance forced the rescuers to shift their focus to the air shaft at Browns Run. Rescuers from the Hitchman Mine (Benwood), Glen Dale, Bellaire, Bridgeport, Steubenville, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Williamson, W.Va. worked in relay teams. Nurses from the Wheeling Chapter of American Red Cross and a number of Wheeling physicians were on hand.
The scene was one of wrenching grief and confusion. Women and children rushed to the site, hysterically screaming and sobbing, asking for word of their loved ones trapped in the mine. Relatives and friends kept a constant vigil outside the main entrance and air shaft despite a heavy, drenching rain. Crowds of curious onlookers and news reporters descended upon Benwood, standing behind hastily constructed barricades. Wives of the miners tried to bypass the barricades, and some searched for alternative ways into the mine. Many simply wandered the streets of Benwood, sobbing.
According to one account, a grieving widow tried to drown herself in the Ohio River after learning of her husband’s death. Onlookers rescued her. On April 30, another woman in the crowd of onlookers was struck and killed by a speeding truck rushing supplies to the rescue teams.
Two men were found alive in the air shaft, but, despite efforts to revive them, both died before being brought to the surface. During the first few days, there was hope that some of the men who had not been burned to death or crushed by the explosion had barricaded themselves into old workings to escape the afterdamp. This early optimism soon waned, as one dead body after another was carried from the mine. After a few days, the odor of decaying bodies became overwhelming.
Temporary morgues were set up in the fields surrounding the air shaft at Browns Run. A morgue was set up at the Cooey-Bentz Building in Benwood, which then provided funeral services in addition to selling furniture and dry goods. Each corpse received a tag marked with the location in the mine where the body was found. The last of the bodies was removed by May 6.
An overwhelming number of the dead miners were recent immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. The largest numbers were from Poland, followed by Italy and Greece. Others hailed from Hungary, Russia, Serbia, Croatia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. Among the dead were three pairs of fathers and sons, as well as five pairs of brothers, and three pairs of cousins.
Many of the deceased were Catholics who belonged to St. John Church in Benwood. On May 5, 1924, 22 of the deceased coal miners were buried side by side at Mt. Calvary, Wheeling’s primary Catholic cemetery. It was the largest mass burial Wheeling had ever experienced. The service was conducted in English, Polish, and Italian. The names on the tombstones included Kuprewicz, DiGiorgio, Ferri, Piechowicz, Pirrera, Dupla, Dlugoborski, Malyska, Kazemka, Rea, Shalayka, Staszewski, and Kopetz.
On May 5, 1924, 22 of the deceased coal miners were buried side by side at Mt. Calvary, Wheeling’s primary Catholic cemetery. Photos courtesy Archives of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Miners who were burned beyond recognition were buried in a mass grave at Greenwood. Those Catholics later identified, largely by process of elimination, were moved to Mt. Calvary. Many, like the Greek miners, remained buried at Greenwood. Others are buried at local cemeteries around the Ohio Valley.
The three Hungarians killed included 36 year-old immigrant Istvan (Stephen) Vargo. Istvan was buried between his two Hungarian friends, Ignac Orban and Sandor Horvath. They were also buried at Mt Calvary, but in a different area than the well-known mass burial.
A relief fund was established for the widows and children of the miners at the Bank of Benwood. In a disgraceful twist, two bank employees embezzled the money, which was never recovered. The embezzlers were caught and convicted, receiving ten year sentences in the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville in June 1925. Damaged by the scandal, the Bank of Benwood closed that same year.
Miners who were hired on as hand-loaders were assigned a place in the mine, and very often shared it with a friend. The two loaders would remove the broken coal to mine cars. Miners were issued tags to identify a filled coal car as his work so that he could be paid based on the weight. In theory, then, all one had to do in the event of disaster was look at the tag board and see who was in the mine and who wasn’t. In practice, this didn’t work as well as it should have. Miners were free to take anyone into the mine with them in order to load more coal, and companies turned a blind eye to most restrictions that were on the books. Teenaged sons, smaller children, and newly immigrated brothers often accompanied miners. To get a day off, miners would swap tags with relatives. These helpers weren’t employed by the mine and probably weren’t reported as missing. Such conditions rendered an accurate head count all but impossible. The actual number of men and boys who died in the Benwood Disaster of 1924, therefore, may never be known.
This Mt. Cavalry tombstone image of “loader” and Polish immigrant Jan Piehowicz shows how young many of the victims of the Benwood mine disaster were.
The Benwood Mine Disaster Memorial
Joseph Tellitocci’s extensive research to compile an accurate and complete list of the names of the Benwood Mine Disaster victims sparked a project to honor the lost coal miners with a permanent memorial. The monuments that now stand at the Boggs Run Road site are the result, thanks to the dedication, hard work and generosity of numerous individuals and organizations.
The Benwood Mine Disaster Memorial (3 large stones) commemorates the 119 coal miners killed in the April 28, 1924 explosion. The small stone off from the main monument commemorates the 5 coal miners killed in an explosion 18 years later on May 18, 1942 at the Hitchman Mine, also located in Benwood. The memorials were formally dedicated on Saturday, September 27, 2014.
The Benwood Mine Disaster Memorial Committee: Joey Tellitocci (co-chairperson and treasurer); his father, Joseph Tellitocci, Jr. (project coordinator); Susan Reilly (co-chairperson), Catherine Feryok (designer of the memorials); Ed Sherman; Gladys “Betty” Key; John D. Mercer; and JR Cross.
Anybody wishing to make a donation towards the continuing development of the Memorial Site can send a check payable to the Benwood Mine Disaster Memorial Fund to the Marshall County Historical Society, P.O. Box 267, Moundsville, WV 26041. All donations are tax deductible.
Digital Storytelling Video: The Benwood Mine Disaster
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