It happned two or three years before
the members of the Class of '68 were born. It became a legacy
that the members of our class would hear about throughout
our days in school. On March 25, 1947 the Centralia No. 5
coalmine explosion near the town killed 111.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration of the U.S.
Department of Labor reported the explosion was caused when
an underburdened shot or blown-out shot ignited coal dust.
The mine was exceedingly dry and dusty. Heavy deposits
of coal dust were present along the roadways and on the
roof, ribs, and timbers in working places and entries.
At the time of the explosion most of the men were at the
man trips on the entries waiting for the shot firers to
complete lighting the shots so they could ride to the shaft
bottoms on the man trips. At the time of the explosion
142 men were in the mine. Of those, 65 were killed by burns
and violence and 45 by afterdamp. Eight men were rescued
but one died from the effects of afterdamp. Twenty-four
The Centralia High School basketball team became known
as the "Orphans" in 1936 because upstate sports
reporters thought them shabby upstarts to be competing
at the state level. However, the name became prophetic
after the No. 5 disaster; at one time, all the players
had lost a father in the mines.
Bill Neipoetter Recalls Mine Disaster
Bill Niepoetter, 77, of Centralia,
Ill., holds a St. Louis Post-Dispatch special
section from April 30, 1947, detailing the
aftermath of an explosion that killed 111 miners
in this southern Illinois city on March 25,
1947, at Niepoetter's home in Centralia, Ill.,
Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006. Niepoetter's father
and three other relatives died in the blast. **
(Saturday, January 7, 2006, Centralia, IL *)
- Notes found in dead miners' pockets. The confusion, hope
and then agony of loved ones waiting for word of rescue.
The news this week from West Virginia's Sago Mine was hauntingly
familiar for 77-year-old Bill Niepoetter. He lost his father
and three other relatives in a coal mine explosion that
killed 111 in this southern Illinois town in 1947.
Niepoetter, a college student at the time, rushed home
upon word of the explosion. He gathered with others to
wait hours for word of their friends' and relatives' fates.
" One rescue worker would come up and say, `It's
bad, there are not going to be any survivors.' The next
one would come up and say, `It's not going to be as bad.'
We had no notion," he said.
Rescue workers would emerge from the mines, their faces
sooty and grim.
" I swear that if the rescue guys would come in right
now, I'd be able to recognize them. Their faces," Niepoetter
said. "It's something you never forget."
March 25, 1947 is the day Niepoetter's 41-year-old father
Henry "Peck" Niepoetter and 110 others died.
Thirty-one miners managed to survive.
It was later discovered that an explosive charge meant
to loosen coal in the mine ignited coal dust hanging in
the air 545 feet below ground.
At first, Niepoetter was hopeful, remembering that several
years earlier his father had managed to dig his way out
of a mine when its roof caved in. That hope faded as a
searcher said he had found his own brother, dead with a
lunch bucket under his arm.
The man told Niepoetter that 15 or 20 other bodies were
lined up below. More corpses were freed as the digging
pressed on, some near notes the victims scribbled to loved
ones in their final moments — something also found
with some Sago miners.
" Be good boys. Please your father. O Lord help me," one
of the Centralia miners wrote.
Woody Guthrie later memorialized those notes in his song "Dying
Searchers brought the first of the miners' bodies to the
surface a day later. It was four days before Niepoetter
learned his father was dead, his remains identified.
Niepoetter buried his father in Hillcrest Memorial Park,
the place locals often call "Coal Mine Hill" because
so many tombstones bear the date March 25, 1947. At least
39 of the miners are buried there, said Judy Sutherland,
co-owner of the cemetery.
Niepoetter said his father, like those in West Virginia,
knew the risks of his job.
" Every miner that I ever knew had a little plaque-like
thing on his wall, a little prayer that said he'd rather
be killed than trapped," he said. "We had one,
and you accept the danger."
Jim Suhr, Associated Press Writer) (** AP Photo/Seth
President, John L. Lewis, surveys the disaster
of relief rescue crew wait to descend into the
Centralia No. 5 Mine, Centralia, IL, where 111
miners were killed in an explosion March 25,
On March 25, 1947, a mine exploded in Centralia, Illinois
killing 111 miners. The Mine Safety and Health Administration
of the U.S. Department of Labor reported:
"The explosion was caused when an underburdened shot
or blown-out shot ignited coal dust. The mine was exceedingly
dry and dusty. Heavy deposits of coal dust were present
along the roadways and on the roof, ribs, and timbers in
working places and entries. At the time of the explosion
most of the men were at the man trips on the entries waiting
for the shot firers to complete lighting the shots so they
could ride to the shaft bottoms on the man trips. At the
time of the explosion 142 men were in the mine. Of those,
65 were killed by burns and violence and 45 by afterdamp.
Eight men were rescued but one died from the effects of
afterdamp. Twenty-four escaped unaided. "
Although the explosion was a tremendous tragedy, loss
of life in underground coal mines was a common occurrence.
United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President John L.
Lewis stated, "There were more casualties in coal
mining than in the armed forces in 1942." The United
Mine Workers of America had emphasized mine safety since
Following the disaster UMWA President John L. Lewis invoked
the union's right to call memorial days. As a memorial
to those killed at Centralia, the miners did not work for
six day, beginning March 29, 1947.
The disaster was of such magnitude that both the House
and Senate held committee hearings on mine safety. Lewis
used those forums to castigate both the operators and the
government. He told the representatives that historically
the operators philosophy was, "We kill them, you (the
union) provide for their widows and orphans. "
|In his testimony Lewis also stated:
||If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial
machine we call modern America, then before God I assert
that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit
from that service because we live in comfort, we owe
protection to those men first, and we owe security
to their families if they die.
For years, Lewis and the UMWA had vocally advocated for
improved mine safety as well as a welfare and retirement
fund. The Centralia Mine Disaster provided the catalyst
to force the government to act and the mining industry
to acquiesce. The UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund continues
to this day.