Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disasterby Melissa Fay Greene
Trapped a mile below the earth's surface, with scant hope of rescue, nineteen miners spent one horrific week in October 1958 without food, water, light, or fresh air. Last Man Out is the extraordinary story of their suffering, their courage, and their miraculous rescue. In minute-by-minute detail, acclaimed author Melissa Fay Greene reconstructs the lives of these nineteen miners, as well as the hopes and fears of their families waiting above ground. From the moment of the mine's collapse to the media circus that ensued when the men were pulled to safety, Last Man Out is a powerful but long-forgotten drama and a remarkable piece of journalism.
"[Greene] is able to bring a people and a place to life without sentimentalizing or refashioning human beings into heroes and villains. . . . A rare reading experience."The Washington Post Book World
"Intuition favors a prepared mind, and Ms. Greene prepared hers by storing the news, gossip, and secrets of her informants, together with her prodigious observations, over a period of years. . . . Poetic and picaresque."The New York Times Book Review
"Superbly drawn . . . Greene's prose is graceful and intuitive. She is far more than a journalist or historian; she is a Southern storyteller in the true tradition of the artist who reveals the wisdom, humanity and frailty of ordinary people."The Miami Herald
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The Thunder of Baritones
In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia, in 1958, coal-mining men dropped through the crust of the earth to a few of the deepest roads on the planet. All day and all night they chiseled toward the earth's core, carving an architecture like the downward-coiling tunnels of a child's plastic ant farm. In helmets, coveralls, and pit boots, they shuffled along pebbly paths a vertical mile underground, to the sound of infernal dripping. At that distance above ground, planes crossed the clouds.
The darkness was like that of deep space. With his headlamp turned off, a man couldn't see his fingers in front of his eyes. Pit ponies once labored in these mines in permanent midnight, tugging the coal cars back and forth on subterranean avenues, and all went blind. In that era of oil lamps, miners risked their lives for the hiss of flame, never knowing when an invisible cloud of gas might ignite. By 1958, the ponies had been displaced by an underground rail system, and the gas lanterns had been swapped for battery-powered headlamps. The black tunnels gleamed briefly as the men tramped along, looking like cumbersome fireflies; drapes of pure darkness swung down behind them the moment they passed by.
"The No. 2 mine is like an underground city, eh?" said an impish fellow named Gorley Kempt. "It's a maze of streets and alleys down there. And all the work is done in darkness."
"When I am all the way down," observed a miner they called Pep, "you know that's the farthest away from home I ever been?"
At the end of each shift, the men toppled into the trolley of coal cars for a ride up the dark twelve-foot-wide funnel known as the Back Slope. The 13,000-foot commute was steep, like the sheer nauseating ascent of a roller coaster toward its greatest peak. At a stopping place at the top of the Back Slope, the workers disembarked, walked through a tunnel to the Main Slope, and seated themselves in a second trolley. Fifty filthy men unwound together, gossiping and grousing, wheezing and napping, while the hoist at the pithead cranked them up through the chute.
When Maurice Ruddick was among them, he led songs for the hour. He was forty-six years old and rather vain of his trim build, pencil-thin mustache, and pomaded, middle-parted hair, though all were buried under the grit of the day's work. He blew the coal dust from his throat with a few warm-up notes, then launched a popular radio song, a song from a Hollywood musical, or an off-color blues or jazz ditty. He nudged his comrades to practice a song they'd mangled the day before. Some snoozed and some ignored him, but many threw in their voices from out of their coal-blackened faces. "Dem Bones," they laughingly sang, and "Don't Be Cruel" and "Bye Bye Love," combining their voices in harmonies and arrangements of Ruddick's invention.
Light-eyed, olive-skinned Ruddick represented the third generation of a Negro Nova Scotia coal-mining family. "Both Mother and Father had colored blood in them," is how Ruddick put it. He was neither particularly liked nor disliked by his fellows as a result; it was, in a way, just one more peculiar thing about Ruddick, who was a bit of an odd duck. You could run into Ruddick off shift strolling down Main Street in a pastel-colored shirt unbuttoned to the chest and a felt fedora tilted back on his head, with a cigar in a cigar holder clenched in a grin or grimace as he greeted you. On this windy northern peninsula, in this utilitarian town, Ruddick offered a bright bit of elegance, a dash of the Hollywood look.
In the coal car riding up out of the pit, Maurice Ruddick, with muscles burning from hard labor, moving stiffly in his crusty outerwear and helmet, turned around to see whom he had to work with before trying to assemble a bit of harmony. He whacked the side of the trolley with his lunch pail for percussion as the other men howled along, their mouths moist red Os in the blackness.
The company men who worked on the surface could hear the miners coming from a long way off, the thunder of their baritones echoing up through the caverns.
When the miners ducked, squinting, out of the aluminum sheds that covered the pitheads of the Cumberland Railway and Coal Company's No. 2 and No. 4 mines, coal dust coated their faces and the cracks in their necks and hands. From under the shade of soot-covered helmets glowed the whites of their eyes and the red of their gums.
What the world wanted lay deeply hidden, had to be exhumed. When the men brought it up, they were the pride of the Canadian government. It was soft coal, the finest in Canada. Black it was, too-so black it looked like the miners had chipped and pried apart chunks of the subterranean darkness in which they grappled. Of such pure, primeval blackness was this rock, of the earth's first order of blackness, that it had become one of the names of the color black: coal black. The stuff had last seen the light of day in the Paleozoic Era, three hundred million years ago, when it fanned its fingers in the sunlight as ferns.
At the redbrick lamp cabin, each miner returned his headlamp and battery for recharging when he was finished for the day, and received in exchange, like a hat-check token, a brass tag with his identification number. His battery was engraved with the same number. A plywood board full of hooks, like the board on which keys are hung in a parking garage, displayed the brass tags of the men currently on shift, wearing their headlamps. In a time of mishap or disaster, the board glittered with tags for too long, describing, at a glance, the number of men still underground. If the worst came to pass, the identity of a man killed in the pit could be confirmed by the identification number on his battery.
In the washhouse, the miners shucked off their stiff coveralls like football players unbuckling their protective gear in a locker room and suddenly they seemed to diminish in size by half. Odd little wormy creatures they looked then, with their sun-deprived, coal-speckled bodies and blackened, earthy heads and hands. Vigorous scrub downs in the shower only dulled the charcoal black of the men's skin to blue, but their wives were tolerant. The women knew that nothing in this town, least of all their husbands, would ever truly be clean.
Like sailors and their ships, the miners called the No. 2 mine "she." "She's taking on water in the sinking," they'd say of the mine's deepest level, or "She's a bit warm this evening." Most of them loved the mine, the work, the fellowship. "Why, I am just as comfortable in the mine," said old-timer Bill James, "as sitting in my chair at home."
"I really do enjoy the mine," said Cecil Colwell, who had worked it since 1930. "I haven't got a bone in my body that has not been broken."
But unhappily, and with increasing frequency, in the late summer and fall of 1958, they heard themselves saying, "She's restless today."
Springhill was a hilly, shady, comfortable town sitting atop a vault of coal, an "underground palace of coal," it used to be said. "The mines consist of entire mountains of coal," enthused a letter writer in 1765, "and are sufficient to supply all the British plantations in North America for ten centuries."
"There was a time when men got coal out of their backyards," according to a local historian. "Shallow pits were found everywhere....There have been instances when a homeowner would step out of his door only to find a big gaping hole where his driveway had been." A couple of churches and schools, a dusty baseball field, and a few pubs and shops on Main Street all brightened and faded under the moving shadows of the bottom-heavy clouds of a maritime peninsula. Pine and birch trees lined the streets. Sugar maples were festooned with buckets, which clattered as sap drained out of the trees every spring, and men in the sugarhouses fired up the stoves.
History was measured like time in a whaling village: There were years of good haul and high prices for coal, which meant new shoes for the children; new winter coats for the women; and record players, hunting rifles, magazine subscriptions, or retreaded car tires for the men. And there were years of catastrophe, when tents were erected to shelter the bodies pending identification; undertakers from nearby towns drove in to assist; and newly widowed mothers wailed at the bedsides of their sleeping children, mourning, anew, their own fatherless childhoods.
There was a growling of discontent, which the men were keeping amongst themselves that fall, two years after the 1956 Explosion in the No. 4 mine had killed thirty-nine of their buddies. It was part of an unwritten miners' code not to show weakness or admit fear. But a sense of alarm was rising over engineer-designed renovations in the No. 2 mine.
Under the rearrangement, the mine was shaped like an italicized letter E. The backbone of the E was the Back Slope, the two-and-a-half-mile tunnel poking at a thirty-three-degree angle into the earth, up and down which the men rode in the coal cars, or trolley.
The arms of the E were the three working tunnels, called levels. Three different teams of men extracted coal simultaneously at three different distances from the earth's surface. There were work sites at the 13,000 level (13,000 feet of trolley track from the pithead), the 13,400 level (13,400 feet of rail), and the 13,800 level. The workers knocked coal from the coal face at each level and shoveled it into troughlike pans. The coal jiggled inside the engine-driven pans toward a conveyor belt, dropped onto the conveyor belt, rolled to a loading machine, was tipped into the coal cars of the trolley, and was hauled by the ton to the surface.
The miners were unhappy with their 1958 levels. For efficiency's sake, they'd been asked to set up the walls in parallel lines rather than in a staggered arrangement. The old-timers feared the three-pronged attack was thinning out the deep rock surrounding and cushioning the workers.
"The old-timers know, they know it's coming," said Doug Jewkes in the washhouse. In the showers, the men could let their guard down, along with their coveralls. A young man with a long face and some blackened teeth, Doug Jewkes looked somewhat off kilter. He had been pegged as an awfully chatty fellow among men who would as soon grunt as give an intelligible response to anything, so he wasn't keenly attended to. "But the company pays no heed a'tall. Joey Tabor told me it's coming. Did you hear he quit? Said, 'I ain't working in that place.' He knows it's coming. All the old-timers know. But what can we do? Either work or be out of a job."
The men lowered buckets, in which their street clothes were stored, from the ceiling of the washhouse. "Well, none of us are too proud of the way we've set the walls up, lining them up straight," Harold Brine would say.
"I have never liked No. 2 like I did No. 4, and it's worse now," Frank Hunter always said.
"Since the Explosion, there is always some little thing to keep your nerves on edge," Joe Holloway would agree.
"Oh, we have always been scared of her," said Percy McCormick, who had worked in No. 2 for twenty-two years. He was one of the old-timers admired by the rookies for his uncanny instinct and the finesse with which he could pry off a chunk of rock and provoke a cascade of glistening coal. Like all the old-timers, he hinted at secret exits, and he knew survival tricks like ducking his face close to a rivulet of water on the floor-if gas was loose in the mine-to capture rising molecules of oxygen. "We all know what she can do," he said. "She bumps and, sooner or later, someone gets it. You just got to hope that she'll bump between shifts. She has, many a time, bumped between shifts and no one got caught."
"If I had the education some fellows has got, I'd be gone," said Doug Jewkes.
"So go already, Jewkes," someone would snap. They were all fed up with him.
"What the devil's the use of me going?" he'd protest. "What could I get?"
"The engineers must know more about it than us," Joe Holloway would say. "So we had better keep still about it."
"If there's a big one," an old guy muttered almost inaudibly low, with his gaunt blue backside turned toward the group, "she'll take all three levels when she goes."
Copyright © 2003 by Melissa Fay Greene
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
Meet the Author
Melissa Fay Greene 's books, Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing, were National Book Award finalists, winning numerous other awards. Greene has written for the New Yorker, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and Life. She lives in Atlanta.
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