Articles & Stories

Twenty-three Died In Tragic Mining Incident In Harlan Co.

In 1932 Rescuers Worked Through The Night To Retrieve The Mine Explosion Victims; Six Brothers Were Among Those Who Perished


Editor's Note: Harlan County was stunned in December 1932 when a mining disaster sent 23 men to their deaths in the Zero Mine of the Harlan Fuel Company in Yancey. At this time this was the greatest mine catastrophe in the history of Kentucky's mining industry. Among the victims were six Massingill brothers, 12 African-Americans, and five others. People were shocked by the news, and gloom hung over the county as families and friends gathered at the mine entrance waiting sadly for their loved ones to be retrieved.
Jerry Asher acquired some of this information from old newspaper clippings and the Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals records. He was also fortunate enough to meet Sue Massingill Shelton and Martha Hendricks, nieces of the Massingill brothers, who shared photos and information.

By Jerry Asher - 2006

There is a special place many have discovered where memories are kept alive and some areas are frozen in time. This special place is the Kentucky Coal Museum in Benham, Harlan County, Kentucky. There are reminders of happy times, comical times, and sadly there are also reminders of tragic times. One display is of the Massingill family, a family who suffered more than anyone could imagine.

The tragedy began on December 9, 1932. A mother and father lost six of their sons in one fiery moment. In all, 23 miners lost their lives in the Zero Mine at Yancey. State records indicate that an improperly tamped powder-load could have possibly caused the explosion. When blasting coal, a hole was drilled and a charge of powder was placed at the back of the hole, then dummy bags were tamped tightly against the powder-charge. If it is loosely tamped it burns out through the hole instead of exploding. Burning out through the hole ignited the gas land dust. Black powder was later outlawed. This theory cannot be proven to be the cause of the explosion because everyone in that section of the mine was killed.
Adding to the pain of the disaster was miserable weather. It was a cold, rainy Friday and a muddy time. The road leading to the Zero Mine was wet and slick. Several cars slid off the road and were stuck in the mud. In spite of this, hundreds of family and friends were waiting at the mouth of the mine for their loved ones to be brought out. The Massingills, having 11 children, lost over one-half of them in one short moment.
P. N. Massingill was 78 years old and waited dry-eyed at the mouth of the mine for the rescuers. He sat motionless with his face solemn and inflexible. The bodies of three sons had already been removed along with one other miner. "Reckon there ain't much need my staying around," Massingill said, "Reckon all my younguns are dead, but I am staying anyhow."
J. F. Bryson, safety director of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association, was the first to enter the mine after he received news of the explosion.
Charles Guthrie, mine superintendent, was sitting before a fire on the outside when he saw leaves puffed out of the mouth of the mine. As the ventilation fan draws air into the mine, he suspected there was danger. He rushed into the adjoining entry and warned men to get out. The 12 miners who escaped the deadly gas fumes rushed from the mine to tell of the explosion.
Bryson was notified at Black Star, and he hurried to Yancey after notifying rescue teams to be on standby. He entered the mine at 11:40 a.m. and at about 2,000 feet into the mine encountered gas. He returned and led two rescue teams in with him to begin the hazardous work of finding the bodies. At first a faint hope was held that some of the men might have been able to brattice themselves off from the fatal "black damp," carbon monoxide that follows an explosion.
Gradually ventilation was restored further and further into the mine depths. Rescuers encountered terrific heat as they neared the explosion point.
One of the most graphic descriptions of the explosion came from Dave Davenport, 36, whose brother, Charles, was killed in the mine.
"I was about 150 yards from the point of the explosion, with a gang of 20 other men," he said. "I felt something like a needle pushed into my ears and then jerked out. I knew it was an explosion and yelled, 'Come on, boys, let's get out of here,' and we started running." Unnerved by the experience, Davenport said his mining career was at an end.
All afternoon the rescuers pushed into the mine and at 7:15 p.m. the first four bodies were brought out. Three of them were Massingill brothers. All of them apparently died from the gas that overtook them as they tried to escape.
Rescuers found some of the bodies 4,000 feet apart, indicating they were not all at the point of the explosion. Five were badly burned, the others were victims of the "black damp."
The bodies were dragged over debris that had been shaken from the roof. All through the cold, wet night rescuers worked. Saturday at 1:30 a.m. 19 bodies had been recovered, identified, and sent to the Cumberland mortuary. Around 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning the last four men were found, and the bodies were brought out of the mine at 7:00 a.m.
As the bodies were brought from the mine, they were identified, wrapped in huge pieces of burlap, and loaded into hearses. As the bodies were brought from the mine they were first taken to the Cumberland mortuary. The hearses passed by the homes of some of the miners where Christmas trees were already displayed.
I believe the Cumberland mortuary was the old Creech Drugstore building. It stands across the street from the Harlan Courthouse. The bodies were displayed on the second floor. The building is now vacant, and the windows are missing on the second floor.
More than 5,000 people were estimated to have passed through that death room on Saturday to view the victims. Women, with children in their arms or clutching to their skirts, came to see their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers.
Five Massingill women, wives of the brothers and each with a young child, cried hysterically. They walked about the bodies time and time again. At last they were forced to move due to the large crowd pushing behind them. The brothers were taken to Tazewell, Tennessee, and were buried in one large grave.
One other important thing that stands out about the disaster is the number of African-Americans who lost their lives. Twelve of the 23 killed were African-Americans. This also shows what a major part they played in the development of the county, and the important part they played in coal production. The African-Americans killed were: Harrison Jackson; Luther Jones, 26; Benjamin Fields, 32; brothers, Arthur Woods, 32, and Harold Woods, 28; Mace Turnbough, 30; Alfred Graves; Jim Davis; Eugene Woods; Will Reynolds; Will Newell; and Robert Benko. Others were: Garret Massingill, 36; Henry Massingill, 34; Thomas Massingill, 32; James Massingill, 30; Campbell Massingill, 26; Easu Massingill, 20; Henry Hibbard, 39; Herman Eddie and George Hendricks (half-brothers); O. A. Romine, 29; and Charles Davenport, 32.
Someone once said that if we say their names and tell their story, they will always be with us. To my knowledge not any kind of recognition has been made to these men or their families for their sacrifice. No plaques or monuments stand anywhere.
If you are interested in the history and heritage of the coal miner and mountain people, you would enjoy visiting the Kentucky Coal Museum located in Benham. Benham was a coal camp built by International Harvester in the very 1900s. This small town is extremely neat and pretty.

Jerry Asher, 4586 HWY 840, Wallins, KY 40873, shares this article with our readers.