When you pass an accident on the side of the road, you look. Admit it. We all do. There is something about tragedies and disasters that make us curious, and it isn’t always the most famous and spectacular disasters that grab our attention. There are some disasters that are so unusual, so out of the ordinary, that they make us shake our heads in amazement.
For instance, imagine passing by a large river and seeing a huge whirlpool of water begin to form and then vanish down a drain. That’s what happened around 11:20 a.m. on January 22, 1959, near Pittston, PA.
Like most towns in northeastern Pennsylvania, the lifeblood of the economy in Pittston came from the veins of anthracite coal that ran below the ground. Some of those veins, owned by the Pennsylvania Coal Company, ran below the Susquehanna River. On that fateful Thursday in January, the mine shafts gave way and caused a hole one hundred feet wide to open up in the riverbed. More than eighty working men were in those shafts when the water poured in.
For three days the Susquehanna continued to drain. In an attempt to plug the breach, local authorities dumped railroad ties, mining culm and hay bales into the river, but these were not enough. Eventually officials diverted the rail lines and sent over 50 train cars into the river and down the hole. This temporarily slowed the flow but not before ten billion gallons of ice and water had emptied into the mine shafts below. In March two dams were built. The dams diverted enough of the Susquehanna River to create a small island. This allowed workers to access and permanently plug the gaping hole.
How did a disaster of this magnitude happen in 1959? In his 1999 book, The Knox Mine Disaster Robert P. Wolensky asserts that in its pursuit of rich veins of anthracite under the river, the Knox Mining Company received permission from the Pennsylvania Company to tunnel into areas within the minimum 35 feet of roof rock cover. Knox then proceeded beyond the safety “stop lines” on its maps. The Knox miners had been mining underneath the Susquehanna River with sometimes no more than a few feet between them and disaster.
Sadly, of the men working below, only 69 escaped while 12 tragically died. The Knox Company, local mining union officials (one of which secretly owned a portion of the company) and mafia bosses were all implicated in the tragedy. Seven men were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and three were convicted of some form of conspiracy. All these convictions were overturned on appeal, however, some of the culprits did eventually go to jail for tax evasion and bank fraud.
For more information about the Knox Mine Disaster, please watch the following videos.
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