The following letter was found with the body of George Emery months after the Powhatan mine disaster on July 5, 1944:
Dear wife and family,
I write you these few lines at 6:35 p.m. I am O.K. My head hurts but some of the men are down. I have asked the Lord Christ to have mercy on our souls.
6:53 p.m. Please take good care of our children.
7:02 p.m. Everyone still O.K. We are very cold because we took our clothes to stop the holes in our barricade.
The smoke is coming in slow.
8:09 p.m. The smoke is slowly creeping up on us.
It is 8:15 p.m. I have just asked the Lord’s divine blessing on us who are trapped here and I do hope He heard my prayer. Most of the boys are laying around and they are very cold. My head just pumps. My heart tries to get out of my shirt at times. We are not afraid yet, but we are sick at the stomach. It won’t be long now unless we have a miracle.
I thought I heard a noise from the outside at 844 p.m. Some of the boys are getting afraid.
Oh Lord what shall I do? The boys are now laying back to back to keep warm.
958 p.m. I can smell the fumes right here in the face of No. 8 room. I can see the boys’ faces are getting pretty red.
my lungs are burning like fire but my head is better a little.
1022 p.m. I have been around again. A lot of the men are out. I tried to help. It’s too late for them and me. God bless us. 1032 p.m.
1040 p.m. I can see the smoke in this place. The men are restless. They are talking about death. That is a bad sign. I am starting to vomit myself. 1045 p.m. I am lying down. Too sick to explore. My light still burns. Aberegg is laying next to me back to back. He is a very brave man, which we have find at a time like this. God bless us all. I don’t think we can last much longer. It is now 1107 p.m.
Aberegg is asleep now. Polish seems to be all right, nodding myself. Hi Blondy. (his daughter)
That was the end of the letter.
Dewey was caught between yesterday and tomorrow. The sun had not quite risen, and he had not quite fallen back asleep. Mary was tending to the baby in the next room. His son’s wails abated, replaced by the call of the morning train’s steam trumpet. The powerful trumpeting was predictable and soothing in contrast to the volatility of Dewey’s new son.
“You have to get up soon,” Mary whispered as she leaned back into the bed.
Mary paused, holding back from relaxing completely into the pillow. “I’m sorry,” Mary sighed as she let the pillow hold her.
The morning train, each car heaped with coal, rolled up the Ohio River Valley, leaving the mine in Powhatan Point, Ohio, passing Dewey and Mary’s house in Shadyside on its way north to Pittsburgh. The dark soot of progress painted the trains as they neared Pittsburgh; the coal that Dewey and his father made a living extracting from the earth was bound for ovens and blast furnaces, where men, similarly streaked in black, would toil turning the coal into coke and finally into steel.
At this point, the coal had only completed half of its journey to rejoin with Dewey’s family. Traces of Powhatan Point coal would embed into steel that would form the machinery of war. Dewey’s younger brother Nick was a gunner in a B-29 bomber, and his older brother Eli was an infantryman. Dewey knew that both were in the Pacific, but he couldn’t be sure where exactly. Last that he had heard, they might be going to the Philippines. When Dewey heard that train, it reminded him that the coal that he had once touched may make it into a machine that his brothers may one day use.
Dewey got out of bed and tiptoed around the creaking floorboards outside of the baby’s room. The sun was rising, but the humidity was so thick that it choked the sun’s early light. The day after the Fourth of July, Dewey dragged himself through a morning routine. After eating a quick breakfast and grabbing the lunch pail that Mary had packed for him, Dewey walked across the street and through the unkempt grassy field to the meeting spot at the large oak tree along the road.
If it were up to him, he would drive himself to the coal mine. But even if he did find a car, it was hard to keep gas in that car with war rationing. So this is where Dewey waited for Dorsey, Tony, and Mike. Mike’s uncle was a police officer in Shadyside and he was able to get around the gas rationing when he needed.
Dewey heard Mike’s car approaching through the early morning haze. Dewey stepped into the road, getting ready to jump in, but Mike didn’t pull right up to Dewey, as he usually did. Mike stopped short of the oak tree and pulled off to the side of the road. As Dewey strode over to the car, Mike jumped out of the car and ran behind the tree.
“We’re a little late,” Dewey called to his back.
“I know, just real quick,” Mike yelled as he disappeared behind the tree. Mike took his time relieving himself behind the tree and strolled back toward the car stretching his arms into the slowly clearing air. Mike stood in stark contrast to Dewey. Where Dewey’s eyes were deep set and dark, Mike had bright blues that displayed his untroubled nature. Where Dewey was sinewy and narrow, Mike was broad and occupied a room.
“You satisfied?” Dewey joked ushering Mike back into the driver’s seat. Mike offered a wry smile as if to say, I’m always satisfied. It always amazed and baffled Dewey how carefree Mike could be. Nothing seemed to phase Mike, like it would Dewey. Even the prospect of spending a hard day in the mine after enjoying the Fourth of July together, just rolled off of Mike’s back. It’s not that Dewey was averse to hard work, it was just starting to sink in at the age of 25 how inevitable the future seemed. Dewey Munas would like to be known as a man that could handle the strenuous work of the coal mines, because he did. And he would like to be known as a man that was brave enough to fight in the war, because he would. He would just prefer to have the choice to not do either. Dewey’s father did not have that choice. His father had to work in the coal mines, but Dewey had a sense that his opportunities could change.
Dewey’s father, Božo or his adopted American name Robert, was born in Serbia. But Serbia was just a name given to a land that was in upheaval at the time of Robert’s birth. From wars, to assassinations, to annexations of a place that was once home, the room to make a life in Serbia was becoming smaller and smaller. The last straw came separately for Robert and his eventual wife Smilja. They didn’t talk about what the last straw was, but Robert fled, followed by Smilja after. Smilja, much later in life, would recount the journey to her children.
When the boat coasted into the predawn upper harbor of New York City, Smilja was shocked with the torch seemingly floating in the fog. She was shocked with the beauty of the small castle on an island waiting to greet them. Smilja told her children that she was sure the backdrop of twinkling lights from Manhattan was heaven. After a full day of trains and buses later, she found herself in Steubenville, Ohio. She stepped off the last bus and straight down into ankle deep mud. Smilja was certain, she told her children, that Steubenville was hell.
Her kids would laugh uncontrollably at her declaration. “Hell? Mama! You must be joking,” the kids would say in Serbian, the only language they knew before going to school.
“Maybe,” she laughed along with her kids. The truth was she knew that they were fortunate. Smilja knew the alternative, going back to Serbia, could be worse than hell.
The car ride to Powhatan Point Mine normally passed in silence, the car lacking a radio, and the boys lacking inspiration. Dewey was drawn out of a daze by the prodding of Dorsey from the front seat, “Hey back there, one day of party and you can’t hang.”
“Šta?… zašto… can’t we just… sleep… well, you stay up Mike. I’ll sleep,” Dewey muttered, switching between Serbian and English.
“You didn’t even stay out late with us last night, and now you are so tired you are speaking gypsy?”
“It’s not that. The baby wouldn’t go to sleep…”
“Oh, you see Dudz,” Mike interrupted Dewey. “You just gotta get some of your old man’s shine and put a little drop on Junior’s lips. There weren’t even any fireworks this year or nothing keeping that baby up. A little shine and y’all be sawing logs in no time.”
The boys continued to have a laugh at Dewey’s expense, but his gaze lost focus through the mud streaked window as the the scenery altered between sun scorched fields, trees holding onto the fog, and the glinting of the morning sun on the Ohio River.
Dewey was too preoccupied to engage. He was between daydream and dream, both imagining a world far from mining. With each additional year in the mines, Dewey had a growing desire to change his life. His desire was fueled by friends leaving for college, his brothers leaving for war, and the sense that if he didn’t change with the world, he would be left toiling in the mine shafts, forgotten.
Not long after Dewey started working at Powhatan Point, a neighboring mine at Willow Grove had an explosion that killed 72 men. It wasn’t the accident that shook Dewey or the scene of roads choked with the cars, as loved ones tried desperately to make it to the mine. What stuck with Dewey happened one month after the explosion, on an afternoon drive that Mike and Dewey took with their girlfriends, the first warm day of spring. They drove into the hills along McMahon Creek to find a rope swing and water hole. Mike insisted he knew the way, but ended up on a mine road heading through Willow Grove. Maybe Mike was just curious, but Dewey didn’t want to see anything up there, “Hey Mike, this isn’t right. Let’s turn around.”
Mike stuck his chin into the air, craning his neck to see around the next corner, ignoring Dewey’s request. They rounded the next corner and came upon the main entrance to the mine, passing by the end of a lunch break. Willow Grove Mine was made to look as if nothing had happened, no explosion, no death.
The look of one man’s face is what stuck with Dewey. The man had just finished lunch and was walking toward the rail car that would take him back underground when he caught a glimpse of Dewey in the passenger seat. Dewey tried not to look, but the miner’s gaze transfixed him. Dewey could not look away from the defeat and inevitability that he saw on that man’s face. They both knew that he was going back to work in the very mine where his friends, family maybe, had died one month earlier.
Dewey wanted to call out that he understood, that he was a miner too. That he wasn’t there to gawk at the remnants of a disaster. Dewey wanted to offer some sort of solidarity, but the words choked and stopped short. Would he too be lining up to go back to work after a disaster killed his friends or his family? Dewey hoped for something different. He hoped for an uncertain future.
“You sure are in your own world today,” Tony nudged Dewey from the other side of the bench seat, bringing Dewey back into the present.
“Sorry guys, just a little groggy.”
“Don’t worry Dewey, we get through this one and we’re over halfway done with the week.”
“Yeah,” Dewey kept looking through the mud streaked window. “Another week done.”
Robert stood on the hill overlooking the mine entrance road. He always got up earlier than necessary to walk into work. His family always thought he was a little crazy for missing out on the extra hour of sleep, but he just loved how quiet the walk was. He loved how the fog hung low in the valleys and the birds seemed to be the only creatures greeting the slowly rising sun. He removed his pocket watch, glanced at its face, and pictured Dewey on his way down Route 7. Robert heard the first blow of the morning whistle and turned to see the miners coming in for the day shift. Robert pocketed his watch, grabbed the lunch pail at his feet, and started walking toward the incoming crowds.
Robert found Pedja, or Pete by his American name, and began congregating in the “Serbian” corner before heading into work. Milivoj was the first to speak among the groggy miners, “Where is that son of yours, Božo? Always late.” Robert nodded dismissively toward Milivoj but did not respond.
Pete came to Robert’s defense, “He is a good kid, Milo. What is your problem with him?”
“He does not know his place. Always late. Always head in the clouds. Always slacking on loading the belt.”
Robert again did not respond. He knew it was not his son’s work ethic that upset Milivoj. The silence and tension from Milivoj’s temper hung in the air, until it was cut by the sound of a car engine coming up the mining road. The Serbian crew turned to see Mike’s car, trailing a cloud of dust, come to a stop in front of them.
As the boys piled out, Robert offered a quick glance at Milivoj to see the disdain on his face. Robert knew that the real reason for Milivoj’s irritation was seeing a Serbian become an American. Seeing a Serbian marry outside the community, move to places like Shadyside, become friends with Germans, Polish, and Irish. Milivoj had come to America at nearly the same time as Robert. And while Robert had learned to speak English and passed his citizenship exam; Milivoj resented every part of his flight from Serbia. Milivoj’s past was a mystery to most of the community, but most assumed that he had fought in the Bulgarian War. Some talked about his family and why they hadn’t joined him in America, but Milivoj never talked about the war or his family. Robert knew more than most but did not join in with the gossip. The truth was that he worried about Milivoj and his anger.
“Come Milo. Let us get to work,” Robert patted Milivoj on the shoulder and guided him away from the boys as they gathered their lunch pails.
“Don’t patronize me Božo! I know when it is time for work,” Milovoj responded, throwing one last spiteful glance toward Dewey and storming toward the trolley.
“What was that about?” Dewey asked as he split off from his friends.
“Nothing to worry. Milo is upset about the news from Serbia,” Robert switched back into speaking Serbian, stretching the truth, and started walking toward the trolley.
Dewey and Robert walked in silence for a moment before Dewey responded, “I don’t think I will ever understand Milo. He is always after me.”
“Some men have wounds that you cannot see. Try not to take this personally. Forget about it… here,” Robert handed Dewey a folded up piece of paper. Dewey unfolded it to see a letter from his brother, Eli. Dewey stood and read the first few lines as Robert kept walking. But as the second blast of the morning whistle pierced the air, Dewey jogged to the trolley, clutching the paper tight. Sitting next to his father, Dewey set about reading the letter as the trolley lurched toward the mine entrance. He held the corners of the paper tight against a blowing breeze and read until the trolley car trundled underneath the stone arch emblazoned with “No. 3”.
Dewey looked up from the paper as the light from the tunnel entrance faded and the tunnel lights streaked by. The beginning of the letter was not much different than the previous letters from Eli and Nick, but there was something different that Dewey just could not put his finger on.
Before Eli left for the war, he was full of the confidence of young man. His first letters home reported the mundane tasks of the day. He wrote about not getting his pay for the first few months, about the good and the bad food, and about the endless days crossing the Pacific Ocean. But despite the mundane nature of the letters, they were always eloquently written. This letter was the first one to lack that subtle confidence and the thought of someone knowing that their written words might be saved. Dewey folded the letter carefully and placed it in his chest pocket in the moments between pitch black and temporary light as they descended down the Number 3 Entry.
Dewey wondered what might be behind those words. He knew that something important was happening in the Philippines and it was affecting his brother. Descending into the mine, Dewey felt the distance between himself and his brothers increasing.
Robert sat silently and watched as the lights temporarily illuminated his son’s face as he placed the letter in his pocket. He put his hand on his son’s shoulder to get his attention amid the clamor of the descending rail car. “I’m proud of you,” Robert said into his son’s ear over the racket. In the wake of Milivoj’s outburst and Dewey’s sleep deprived uncertainty over the direction his life could take, these few words were a lifeline to Dewey. He would still hope for an uncertain future, but for today he would go into the earth having his father’s blessing even if he did not have his own.
The morning of work went by without Milivoj having to cross paths with Dewey. Dewey and Robert were working in the deepest part of the mine, while Milivoj was assigned to the timberman back on the trolley line. Dewey rested his back against the trolley wheel next to Dorsey, Tony, and Mike with his lunch pail between his legs. Deep in the earth, just a few tunnel lights lit the area where they sat to have lunch. Dorsey leaned into his sandwich and offered Dewey advice with a mouthful of food, “You need to tell Milo where to stick it.”
“Yeah! That old man is a racist drunk. If he doesn’t like America, tell him to go back and play with Hitler,” Mike jumped in.
“Let’s just forget about him,” Dewey suggested. “I want to hear about Tony’s night with Carol instead.”
“Oh yeah, c’mon Tony. You disappeared even earlier than Dudz last night. Where did you two sneak off to?”
“My brother may or may have not let me take his car,” Tony said with a smirk.
“Oh we aren’t letting you off that easy.”
“Tony, are you a…” Dorsey stopped short as he heard a thud from far back in the tunnel. All the miners coiled and fell silent, as they felt the steady air flow from the exhaust fans far above waiver for a second. Every man held their breath, knowing the signs of an explosion like the one that had killed the miners at Willow Grove. Slowly, one by one, each man’s shoulders relaxed as the explosion did not come. Everyone breathed a slow sigh of relief as the foreman, Earl, walked over to a yellow phone mounted on the wall.
Milivoj stared in shock as the flames encircled the cavern in an instant, covering the ceiling. The fire coated collapsing missiles of rock and coal, the flames licking at the falling dust and igniting in plumes of crimson that rushed towards Milivoj as he stumbled backward and fell to the ground. The timberman jumped over Milivoj and grabbed the sparking trolley wire and yanked until it came clear of the track rail. The timberman turned from the flames as they singed his eyebrows and bit at his eyes. He fell to the ground and clawed at the dirt, unable to open his eyes. Pulling and crawling from the growing flames, the timberman came even with Milivoj, who was still lying on the ground, staring in disbelief.
“Go get them! Down in C,” the timberman yelled as he found his way past Milivoj and onto his feet.
Milivoj watched in disbelief as the timberman ran away from him and toward the surface. His command of English was not great but he knew what he had heard. Dazed, he looked past the growing flames, to where he knew dozens of men were sitting down for lunch. Dozens of men that, despite his anger and constant irritability, he considered his only friends.
The heat from the flames snapped Milivoj back to reality and he too began clawing away from the flames and away from his friends, toward the surface. First crawling until he gained his feet and then running, Milivoj cried between gasps of breath as he ran. His headlamp bouncing wildly cast the walls in frenetic flashes as he raced further and further from the flames.
Milivoj caught up to and collapsed at the timberman’s feet as he pulled a breaker from the trolley wire junction box. A group of miners were gathering around him as the timberman caught his breath, “…Fire! The trolley wire shorted … ignited the coal. C entry … they’re stuck…”
A foreman, George, grabbed the nearest yellow phone and began talking over the din as reality settled into the group. No one could hear him above the growing clamor, until George yelled, “Quiet!”
“OK, I am going to try from here.” George slammed the receiver down and stepped forward into the middle of the gathering.
George grabbed a man as he walked past Milivoj sprawled across the trolley tracks. “Get the equipment back up here Fred! Bring it down C and get to work on this fire,” George spoke forcefully, calmly. “The rest of you, help Fred make that happen,” George called over his shoulder as he parted the crowd with his arms.
“But what about…” Fred stammered realizing he had no idea what to ask.
“There isn’t time,” George yelled as he started to run. George’s light disappeared down into the mine, toward the fire and the trapped miners. Everyone stirred, first toward the exit, and then hesitated looking to Fred.
“Alright, you heard him! Let’s get this loader,” Fred yelled over the commotion. When his words went unnoticed, Fred whistled as loud as he could, bringing everyone to attention. “Get your asses moving! You guys go down the West faces and find the largest waste piles,” Fred motioned toward half the group on his left. “We need to get all the tailings we can from the West face and dump them into the fire! The rest of you come with me to get the loader and shuttle car out of B and back up here!”
The group sprang to action and split in two different directions and left Milivoj on the floor of the mine, alone. Milivoj brought himself to his feet, turning to look down the C entry, where George had just run to try and save Milivoj’s only friends. With the breaker pulled, the C entry was completely bathed in black. Milivoj stared into the blackness for a moment, not sure what to do. He stared until the blackness was interrupted by a distant flicker of orange. With a familiar guilt resting like a pit in his stomach, he turned toward the surface and fled.
In the deepest part of the mine, Earl reached the yellow phone and slowly pulled the receiver from the hook, “What’s going on up there?” Earl stood very still as silence greeted him on the phone line. He hung up the receiver and composed himself as he turned around. “Nothing to worry about, probably just a broken phone line. Mike, Ray, Harry, and Pete come with me, we are going to take care of this.”
Mike jumped up and broke the tension, “Don’t worry boys, you just keep getting your union required lunch break while we take care of business!” He slapped Dewey on the back and gave him a wry smile that Dewey had trouble returning.
The group of five disappeared around the corner leaving the rest of the miners in silence that stretched into minutes. Robert leaned in toward Dewey and broke the silence. “This is not good,” Robert whispered just before the tunnel lights went dark.
George rolled on the floor of the mine, choking, spitting, gasping for breath. He had run through a wall of fire, and his nostrils and eyes filled with the violent reaction of his body rejecting the soot and heat. He fought to his hands and knees, struggling further into the mine. Not able to see, his eyes so filled with tears and soot, George crawled along the trolley rails toward the miners he knew were now trapped.
George crawled until he heard a commotion ahead of him. He wiped at his eyes until he could make out the hazy outline of his headlamp against a wall. He fought to place his feet on flat ground and stood just as a group of five men ran over to him.
“What are you doing!?” One of the men, just a blur to George, grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Fire!” another of the men yelled. All but the man holding George, turned and started running toward the only way out.
“Fire … back … at the slant,” George coughed and sputtered, the man barely holding him aloft.
“Let’s get out of here!” The man implored George.
“Get through that fire if you can. I will get the others,” coughing George left the last of the five men on his own, continuing further into the mine. The remaining man turned his focus toward the blaze as George found his feet underneath him and began picking up speed further into the mine.
“Let’s get out of here now,” someone called as the lights went out. Dewey and Robert were already standing, and began to run, stumbling toward the exit, leading the charge out through the now darkened mine shaft.
The men shortly came across George, blackened by smoke, still spitting and coughing. Most rushed passed him, bewildered as he continued further into the mine. Dewey caught George by his arm just as he passed him, “What’s going on?”
“Fire, back at the slant,” George shrugged out of Dewey’s grasp and continued deeper into the mine.
“What are you doing, let’s get out of here!”
“It’s too late, help me with these timbers,” George gestured emphatically toward a stack of timbers and posts at the end of the trolley line. When Dewey didn’t immediately respond, George began grabbing the timbers and single-handedly began heaving them into place across the mine shaft.
Dewey stood there, not sure what to do, as the rest of the men quickly disappeared toward the exit. Reluctantly, Dewey turned and hurried after the men running toward the exit.
It didn’t take long. The darkness gave way to yellow-red flicker, reflecting off the walls and choked by plumes of noxious smoke. Dewey ran harder toward the growing light and came to a skidding halt directly at the backs of dozens of men silhouetted against a raging inferno.
“There is no chance!” Someone yelled and pushed Dewey aside and began running back into the mine.
“Tata!!” Dewey yelled, scanning through the smoke for Robert.
Robert’s hand found Dewey’s shoulder through the billowing smoke and grabbed tight. Dewey locked arms with his father and stumbled, jostled by the panicked men, as the smoke blotted out their vision. Dewey found the steel rail of the trolley car, crouched, and ran his hand down its length. Crawling and choking, Dewey guided his father through the smoke and further into the mine.
George struggled on his own with the heavy timbers until the men arrived back from the fire, “Everyone grab a timber. We need to get this barricade up to keep that smoke out!”
Some men grabbed free timbers and began erecting the wall that George had started. Others raced back to their equipment to grab shovels. “Start piling coal on this end while we finish the other side,” George yelled to the men arriving with shovels.
Dewey and Robert arrived at the wall and were the last to step through the quickly forming barrier. Lacking shovels, they began scooping, hand over hand, mounding dirt and coal onto the wall. Dewey pushed his hands deep into the earth, scraping his knuckles and wrists across sharp rocks until his mud-stained hands ran with his blood.
“Now over here,” George yelled as they pushed the last timber available into place. The men with shovels crowded in and began throwing dirt onto the barricade. Dewey and Robert tried to step forward to help, but there was no room so they joined the onlookers. As the wall took shape, Dewey thought of Mike on the other side. Maybe he had made it out. Dewey dwelled on that thought as he tried not to look at the miners around him. Dozens of men stood helpless watching the barrier take shape, their faces locked in concern, their lips sealed tight. They knew as well as Dewey did, they were building their tomb.
Dewey pushed his rolled up jacket and pants into a seam between the wood boards of their makeshift blockade and stepped back without a second look at their creation – a haphazard array of wood, dirt, coal, and clothes. The group of about five dozen men was oddly calm now that their barricade was complete. The area behind their barricade was a short hallway with seven small rooms where the group had been mining just a few hours ago. The group crowded around George in the hallway.
“Everyone just settle in and stay calm now. They are working on getting us out of here,” George was saying to group. Dewey scanned the group with his lamp. If it weren’t such dire circumstances, Dewey would have let himself laugh. It was comical seeing all the men, with their hardhats, all in boots, some wearing leather gloves, with just their boxers and t-shirts to finish off their attire.
Dewey found Dorsey and Tony amidst the headlamps and sat down with his back against the cold walls of coal. “Mike might have made it out,” Dewey said picturing the fire blocking their only exit out. He figured that the guys that went back to check on the dead phone line might have got to the fire a few minutes before they did. Maybe they were able to get around it.
“Yeah, George said they might have. He said that the guys from B are putting that fire out. They have a loader getting tailings to dump in there,” Dorsey offered.
“He also thought that they might be trying to cut in from Number 1. That could work. I am not sure how far it is,” Tony trailed off as he looked into the earth in the direction of the other mine shafts. Tony shivered from the cold and the thought of all the earth between them and daylight.
Dewey was willing to give hope for Mike, but shivered too when he thought about their chances. He wasn’t about to cut into Dorsey and Tony’s hope, but he knew what would happen next. Mine fires are dangerous and need only two things to keep burning for years: coal and oxygen. If the men making decisions at the surface wanted to stop this fire they had control of one of those things. Dewey pictured the two massive fans that currently liberated the mine of poisonous air and circulated in oxygen. Dewey imagined those fans pumping air into the mine until a faceless man in a suit gave a nod, and the switch was thrown to turn them off. The man in the suit would then look over gauges and printouts and nod again. That is when the fans and all the entries would be boarded over. Who knows, maybe Mike made it out and he would be the one placing the boards.
Dewey hugged his arms around his shoulders and thought about the warm day they had left at the surface. He pictured Mike walking around the oak tree that morning as the sun quickly burned off the fog of the day. He pictured his wife and baby laying on the living room floor avoiding the stifling afternoon heat. He pictured his Mama and his sisters going about their day, unaware of the inferno that had trapped him and their Tata down here. He pictured Nick tucked into the blister of a bomber watching the world fly by. But he couldn’t picture Eli. The subtle differences in Eli’s writing made Dewey think that Eli was in the thick of the war, maybe fearing for his life, maybe fearing for life after war. Dewey had a distant hope that maybe this accident would bring his brothers home from the war.
Thinking of Eli, Dewey suddenly realized he didn’t have his letter. Dewey jumped up and ran to retrieve the letter still in his jacket pocket tucked into their blockade.
“What’s wrong, Dudz?” Tony called as Dewey’s headlamp disappeared around the corner.
Dewey stumbled over miners and around the corner to the blockade. He yanked out his jacket and began searching the pockets.
“Hey, what are looking for,” a hand on his shoulder asked.
Dewey scrambled turning every soot-filled pocket inside out, finding nothing. Incredulous, Dewey looked up at the blockade. Maybe he had missed his jacket; maybe this was not his. Dewey reached up to find another jacket when the hand grabbed his arm, “Hey there, it’s not worth it. Whatever it is. We have to keep the smoke out.” The hand pointed to the crack where the jacket had been lodged.
Dewey pointed his headlamp at the spot to see trails of smoke trickling through the cracks. “I’m sorry. It’s just…” Dewey turned and saw the face of George, who was keeping watch at the barricade.
“Don’t worry… Hey what is your name?”
“Dewey… name’s Dewey.”
“Alright, Dewey. Don’t you worry. Just let me have that jacket. I will stop this back up. You just go back and try to rest.”
“But that letter, it’s the last thing I will read,” Dewey said softly.
“Dewey, I didn’t run down here to die. Just you get some rest,” George ushered him with a nudge. “We will get out of here,” his voice becoming less commanding with each word, yet Dewey’s grip on the jacket relented.
Dewey removed his hardhat and rubbed his forehead as he walked away from George and the barricade. His head ached, deep and thrumming. His skull hummed and reminded him of Eli again.
Dewey remembered a game they played once on the train tracks. He must have been around 8 years old, Eli 11 or 12. His sisters and Nick were young at the time, so they must not have been there, but Dewey couldn’t be certain. Eli had been told that you could hear an approaching train by placing your head on the train tracks. So they laid down facing each other with their ears pressed to the rails.
Dewey glanced up and down the rails, anxiously, every few seconds. Each time, his anxious gaze was met by Eli’s calm and confident stare. “What if it doesn’t work Eli,” Dewey pleaded.
“Don’t worry Dewey. It will work.”
They must have laid there for only a few minutes, but it felt like an hour to Dewey, even now. At the same time, Dewey and Eli began to feel the deep thrumming through the rail. Immediately, Dewey bolted upright and began scanning up and down the tracks. He saw the plume of smoke quickly approaching. Looking down, he saw Eli laying still, calmly listening to the thrumming.
“Eli, come on! Get up!”
Eli pretended for a second not to hear his brother.
A sense of panic welled up in Dewey, “Come on Eli, it’s coming!”
Realizing Dewey was getting upset, Eli rose and stepped onto the other side of the track. There was still plenty of time left, but Dewey exhaled with relief, his hands finding his knees for support.
“Dewey, sorry. I wasn’t going to stay down there,” Eli said as he jumped back over the tracks, with time to spare. He grabbed Dewey’s shoulder and led him away from the tracks as the train sped by, “Let’s go home.”
Dewey thought about the thrumming of that approaching train. He had barely allowed himself to hear it when he was 8. He wondered how loud the thrumming was for Eli as he paused a little longer on that rail. Dewey wondered how loud it would get if you waited for the train to arrive.
Dewey found his father in a separate room from Tony and Dorsey and sat down next to him. “I lost Eli’s letter,” Dewey confessed.
Robert offered up his hand clutching a piece of paper coated in black soot and well trampled. “It came out of your pocket when we were running from the fire,” Robert smiled and placed the letter in his son’s hands.
Dewey took the letter delicately and brushed the soot from the paper. Removing his headlamp, Dewey aimed the noticeably weakening light at the letter and began reading where he had left off. He quickly finished the letter and read it again. There were no further clues as to what Eli was really doing or if the war was really bad. “What do you think it means,” Dewey asked his father.
“Yes. Last time he was talking about going to the Philippines. Now he doesn’t say anything about that and just asks how we are doing.”
Robert sighed as if searching for the right answer. Without finding one, Robert responded, “I don’t think we will know.” Dewey frowned, hoping for some meaning to hold onto.
Robert saw this and said, “I am going to miss Eli too. And Mama, Nick, and the girls.”
Dewey buried his head into his elbow, his eyes filling with tears. Robert reached an arm around his son’s shoulders, looking away as tears too streamed down his face. Dewey wiped at his face. “Do you remember when Mim and Bitt dug up your whiskey and drank it all,” Dewey asked remembering the time that two of his sisters had found the whiskey that his Mama had made during prohibition.
This brought a smile to Robert’s face, “Your sisters drove me crazy. Mama thought they were going to die.”
“Yeah, she put them in a tub of ice, while Seck scolded her for not hiding the whiskey better,” Dewey said referring to his domineering older sister. Robert and Dewey laughed, but it quickly subsided as it was hard to escape the reality of their situation.
Robert took in a deep raspy breath, “I am lucky to have you kids. And I am lucky that I have lived until Tootsie graduated from high school. You have made me very proud.”
Tears began to well up in Dewey’s eyes again, but he held them back this time. “I will be right back. I have to say goodbye to Tony and Dorsey.”
Dewey walked through groups of miners lying back to back, struggling to keep warm as the heat seeped from their bodies. Dewey switched off his headlamp and slid back into the room with Tony and Dorsey.
“Dudz, is that you?” Tony called into darkness.
“Yeah guys, it’s me.”
“Where did you get off to,” Tony asked coughing hard and deep, struggling to pull in air between coughs.
“Don’t worry about that. Why don’t you tell us about Carol instead?” Dewey said into the dark.
“That again? Now?” Tony wheezed.
“When else?” Dorsey jumped in.
“Yeah Tony. We haven’t had a fireworks show in three years. We have to rely on you young bucks for entertainment.”
“Very funny guys.”
Dewey pictured Tony blushing in the dark. Normally, with Mike here they would go on needling Tony about girls and sex. But Mike wasn’t here and the smoke and darkness stifled them. Silence hung until Tony switched on his headlamp aiming it toward the ground. In the dim reflection from the ground, Dewey could see that his face was red, really red.
Without looking up, Tony softly said, “I think I love Carol.”
No one spoke immediately. Even without Mike here, this group was not prone to talking about love. Dewey, the most sentimental of them all, would hold onto those thoughts when around his friends. These men would discuss most things: the upcoming buck hunting season, the merits of Dewey’s new refrigerator, and the inevitable traffic jam on Route 40 on a Friday afternoon, but this new sentiment caught Dewey and Dorsey off guard. It took him a drawn out moment to figure out that a response was needed, but eventually Dewey said simply, “That’s great Tony,” and reached out a hand to Tony’s shoulder.
Tony looked up into the faces of Dewey and Dorsey, his headlamp, losing its charge cast a dim glow on each man’s face. Dewey saw that Dorsey’s face was red too and his eyes bloodshot. Dewey thought of his own bloodshot eyes, “I have to go now.” Dewey forced himself back onto his feet, “Guys?” Neither Dorsey or Tony acknowledged Dewey, blinking into thick air as if he had already left. Dewey tried to speak again, but had nothing left he could say.
Robert flipped open his pocket watch and cast his fading headlamp onto its face. Nearly 11 o’clock. Never one to count any one hour over another, Robert typically wouldn’t look at the watch for an entire day. But he would have long since been home, and these hours carried much more weight. Robert closed his hand on the pocket watch and looked up to see Dewey.
“Dad,” Dewey breathed into the cold, thick air.
“Dewey,” offering his arm, Robert guided his son into his arms, both sitting, leaning against the cold, dark walls. “Come here.” Dewey leaned his back into his father’s chest as Robert ran his black streaked hand through his son’s hair cradling his head, “I know this is not what you wanted for your life. Working down here.”
Dewey tried to speak up but choked on his words.
“I wanted more for you. I wanted you to be happy,” Robert breathed past his son’s ear.
Again, Dewey couldn’t find words. He stared off into the blackness as his headlamp began to fade. The wisps of visible smoke faded too, with the light. The effect caused Dewey to lose focus and brought his attention back to his aching head. That too was beginning to fade as his breaths came more and more shallow.
“I am starting to not feel right, Dewey. Do you understand me? I want you to be happy.”
Dewey reached up and found his father’s hand on his head, “I am content to be down here. If we made it out, we would be the ones turning off the fans. We would be the ones boarding… we would be back mining…”
Robert paused processing Dewey’s words, “The world was not ready for you Dewey.”
Someone in the room began to cough, the rasping deep and guttural. The rasping turned wet as that person gagged on their own tongue and vomited.
Dewey ignored the burning in his own lungs. “I wanted more, but I am not afraid,” Dewey reassured his father.
Robert lost track of the conversation, removed his pocket watch, and looked at it over his son’s shoulder. This time, Robert’s thumb failed to operate the faceplate of the watch. He stared at the glint from the faceplate, barely visible from the waning headlamps in the room. He stared until he couldn’t remember why he was staring at his pocket watch anymore. Robert closed his hand around the watch, holding it to his son’s chest. This way it would be close in case he remembered why he had reached for it.
Dewey pulled his father’s arms around his own body. Slowly closing his eyes, Dewey settled his back against his father’s body, relaxed the muscles in his neck, and prepared himself for the unknown.
Authored by Andy Munas
Featured image: Powhatan Miners
Second image: Smilja (Selma) and Robert
Third image: Dewey, Eli, and Nick (left to right)
Fourth image: Workers sealing the Cat Run shaft at Powhatan Mine on July 6, 1944
Fifth image: Dewey (far left) with siblings (Seck, Eli, Bitt, Mim, Nick, and Tootsie)
17 thoughts on “Powhatan Point”
Andy, I don’t think anyone will ever know the exact details of what took life from those men and the parts of our family but I do know that you’ve wholly captured essence and feelings of that day. I am proud of you for this and so much more.
Andy, I remember my Mother and Father talking about this as a small child. I remember my Mother saying how sad it was for your Mother and her little baby. Thank you for this. This closes a chapter in my life that I did not know the details. GOD Bless you.
I remember my mom talking about the accident years later. My grandfather (Harry mcabee) was one of the hoist engineers. we stayed at the big clubhouse because my mother worked there during the week. It was where a lot of the miners lived during the work week; my dad Edward Lewis was serving his country as a front line cook and baker in Germany. Mother said it was utter chaos around the mine area when the accident happened. She spoke of the young mothers left to raise their babies and young children alone. Such a very sad time, thank you for your insight.
I remember several wives of the trapped miners staying at our house during the recovery of the miners. My Dad was one of the miners who carried friends out of the mine after a shaft was put into place in Fish Basket. Only being 10 years old at that time, I was not aware of exactly what was going on. Dad burned his clothes when the recovery was completed – said he didn’t want to see them again. Really sad time.
My maternal grandfather, Wesley Brown worked in that mime. When his daughter (my mom), Arlene Brown Caldwell was going through personal effects after his death she found numerous articles he had saved on the disaster. Living in the coal camps of Powhatan she remembers it well.
Andy, thank you so much for your beautifully written, moving account of the terrible disaster at the Powhatan mine. I wonder if anyone knows who the four men are in the first picture and when it was taken. Is there any way I might be able to identify them or the date? I suspect the man on the right is my father, Russell Ramser, who worked at the mine for nearly his whole life. But I knew nothing about this disaster, never heard anyone in my family talk about it.
Here is where I found that photograph and the one of the miner’s sealing the Cat Run shaft:
They seem to be old file photos used in the newspapers of the day. I am not sure if there is anymore information than what is available on that Flickr user’s account.
We lived in Powhatan Point for a brief period of time some years ago. I was amazed by the rich history and how people kept it alive-better than any written documents. I just wanted to take a moment to thank this gentleman for giving me insight. May God bless.
You write so beautifully, just another reason why i am proud to call you my brother 🙂
Thank you for a beautifully written account of one family’s experience that fateful day. I remember it well. I lived on a farm at the foot of Cats Run and 148 . There was talk of nothing else. I wonder if the baby sister of Dewey was Mary Munas. We were in the 3rd grade together and later played in a quartet in the high schoolBand.
I’m so glad there are people around who not just remember but bring alive the lives of the greatest generation who built this country
Hi, I’m not sure if this is active or not because I’m not sure how old this is. But if by chance someone reads this, maybe they’ll be able to answer. Assuming everyone in this story is based on a real person, could you tell me what Mike’s last name was? My great grandpa Mike died in this mine fire, he was from Shadyside & had a wife & a baby at the time.
I was recently contacted by Mike Harvey’s grandson George. He and I talked briefly, where I shared that the people in the story are real; however, the events and characters have been mostly fictionalized. I have used some portions of this story in a recent article in Alpinist Magazine:
If you want to ask more questions feel free to send me an email: amunas13 (@) gmail.com
I believe these are the Munas boys. >
I happened across this story by complete accident which resulted in learning something about my family history that I was unaware of. I shared this story with my mother and aunt and they informed me that my grandfather (Mike Rydosz) had traded shifts with George Emery that day.
He lived for another 61 years.
I am struck by how seemingly random choices shape lives.
Thank you for writing this story.
Thanks David. I agree with your feelings on what shapes our lives. I recycled some of the content in this story for a story in Alpinist Magazine #70. That story centered around how things beyond our control shape our lives.