Dear sisters and brothers goodbye,
Dear mother and father goodbye.
My fingers are weak and I cannot write,
Goodbye, Centralia, goodbye.

~Woody Guthrie. “The Dying Miner”

On March 25, 1947, a coal dust explosion shattered south-central Illinois’ Centralia Mine No. 5. 142 miners were trapped in the thick darkness of the mine—only 31 would come out alive.

Two days after the explosion, volunteer rescue workers (now recovery volunteers) were grimly hauling up victims when they came across an odd message scrawled into the wall of a mine side room, about a half-mile from the initial explosion: “Look in everybody’s pockets. We all have notes. Give them to our wives.”

Everyone going, all are gone but Joe Ballantini, Fred Gutzler, Ned Jackson of the Joy is here. Don’t know about the others.

Crowds gather during the rescue.

14 bodies sprawled out at their feet in the darkness. Unlike other bodies, these were stretched out full length, not scattered and stacked upon one another haphazardly. They had been conscious and aware until the end. These miners had been the furthest away from the explosion. Although the side room protected them from the explosive and thermal dangers of the fire, it couldn’t provide breathable air. The men knew that and didn’t even bother barricading themselves in the room with the loose earth around them. Loose earth didn’t provide air either.

These men had lasted just long enough to scrawl out short notes to family members before succumbing to hypoxia. Some had included the time and date in their notes, with the latest marking 6:30 PM (although accidentally written as AM). They had waited in the stifling darkness for almost three hours for air to sour and poison them (called afterdamp).

They used that time to say the goodbyes their fellow miners had not been able to. Some used squares of paper torn from a looseleaf notepad. Some flattened out balled scraps of wrapping paper that had held their dinner only hours earlier. One wrote in chalk on a slate slab.

It is seeping in on us. 6:30 a.m. [sic]

This explosion was no surprise. Only a week earlier, a state mine inspector had been shocked by the dry, dusty conditions in the mine. Loose coal dust created a thick, dark fog in the cramped conditions of the mine and little was done to prevent it. Coal in its natural form is flammable, but the increased surface area of coal dust makes it explosive. The mine needed better ventilation and procedures to keep the coal walls wet, which trapped the loose dust.

Coal dust build-up in a modern mine.

At the time, the Illinois Bureau of Mines ran on political currency, where connections meant more than qualifications. It also meant open kickbacks and bribery, some of which would be traced all the way to then Illinois Governor Dwight Green. Safety recommendations were ignored, no matter how hard the inspectors protested. The miners knew all this, and knew ignoring those safety changes made their work exponentially more dangerous.

Everyone going, all are gone but Joe Ballantini, Fred Gutzler, Ned Jackson of the Joy is here. Don’t know about the others.

On March 25th, the inspector’s worst fears were realized. A poorly-placed charge meant to dislodge coal came loose, and the explosive combustion ignited the suspended coal dust. At the moment of explosion, around 3:30 PM, the crews were getting ready for a shift change, so the miners were bunched together. It was a mercy that most miners died in the initial explosion or immediately after, not even knowing what had happened. Only a few workers, including this small group in the side room, lasted longer.

To my wife: it looks like the end for me. I love you honey, more than life itself. If I don’t make it please do the best you can and always remember and love me,’ honey. You are the sweetest wife in the world. Goodbye, honey and Dickey

The 14 (12 of whom left notes) trapped miners had every reason to use their final words to curse the company, the inspectors, the state, or the entire industry. But they didn’t. To a man, the notes focused on practical concerns and sentiments. They were messages of love, of faith, and of apology. They were earnest and honest goodbyes.

Mothers and wives wait beneath clean, hanging clothes.

500 feet above them, hundreds of wives and rescue workers had collected around the mine’s entrance as soon as the sirens had sounded an alarm. Above ground, there had simply been a low rumble and then a column of thick smoke lazily floated up the shaft. It was a sound they always feared…and always expected. Updates on those underground were sporadic and contradictory in the beginning. Many of the women waited in the changing, sitting beneath the pulleys that held the miners’ clean clothing. The majority of the clothing would never be worn again.

Dear Wife and Sons: Well, hon. it looks like this is the end. Please tell mom and dad I still love them. Please get the baby baptized and send [omitted] to the Catholic school. Well. I love you all, and please take care of them and raise them good Christians. I love them. Love to all of you.

Recovery of the miners.

By the time the 14 were found, recovery work had slowed and the crowds had thinned. Miracles had been hoped for, but no miracles had occurred. Almost none of those underground during the explosion had survived and the absence of fresh air and ventilation guaranteed no corner of the mine could provide shelter. They were all gone.

The tragedy caught the attention of the nation, and an investigative subcommittee formed to root the cause and fault of the explosion. Hearings were held and the Department of Labor published a comprehensive report on the disaster. It turned out to be gestures and posturing. Despite the well-documented warnings and increasing concerns of mine inspectors, the Centralia Mine Explosion had no effect on the coal industry.

Be good, boys. Please. Your father. O Lord, help me

Want to Know More?

Review the Department of Interior’s official report on the explosion “FINAL REPORT OF MINE EXPLOSION No.5 MINE.” There’s no better resource anywhere.