Too often it takes a tragedy to remind us that there are heroes punching in for work everyday. The sixth anniversary of 9/11 pushed my thoughts to recent efforts to save coal miners in Utah and motorists in Minnesota.
Once upon a time my great-grandfather was one of these heroes.
“Trapped,” by Karen Tintori, tells the tragic story of a 1909 mine disaster as it celebrates the courage of the Chicago Fire Department. Two of the author’s relatives survived the inferno, while one perished at the age of 18.
The Cherry Coal Mine was located about 100 miles west of Chicago. Constructed with steel and concrete and illuminated by electricity, it was considered fireproof. However, on the morning of Nov. 12, 1909, the electricity shorted out and miners were using kerosene torches to light the tunnels.
That morning, 480 miners descended below the Earth’s surface to begin work. Not long after, a car containing hay for mules was left too close to a burning torch and a small fire started. It could have been smothered rather easily but everything seemed to go wrong and the fire blazed out of control.
A rescue team of miners and townspeople made descent after descent to rescue trapped miners. Six times they were lowered by cage, coming up half-dead with the men they had saved. The seventh time, the engineer waited too long to hoist the cage and the heroes were burned alive.
News of the mine disaster flashed around the world and help poured in from all over the country. My great-grandfather, Chief James Horan, responded to the disaster with a handpicked crew of Chicago firemen and a steam-powered pump. The mine owners said it was too dangerous to enter the mine but the firemen pleaded for a chance.
Down below, in one of the farthest recesses of the mine, 21 miners held out against fire, smoke and poison gas. To keep their spirits up, the leader of the group conducted prayer services, led the men in hymns and had them write notes to their families. Day after day, they were trapped without food or water.
Meanwhile, Horan’s men flooded the main shaft, cooling it enough for firemen to enter. City boys who had never seen the inside of a coal mine went down and conquered the flames in smoke-filled passageways. Overcome by smoke and heat, they were treated by doctors and nurses and returned to the fight. Thanks to their efforts, rescuers with oxygen tanks were able to reach the 21 survivors, near death after eight days of virtual entombment.
Two hundred fifty-nine workers died in the disaster, which resulted in the passing of Illinois’ first workmen’s compensation law.
The story of the Cherry Mine Disaster gives us another reason to marvel at the bravery of helmeted men and women who disregard danger to save others. It also makes me proud that my great-grandfather was there to help when Karen Tintori’s family needed it.