1911 Banner Mine explosion

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A crowd gathers at the Banner Mine shortly after the 1911 explosion

The 1911 Banner Mine explosion was a deadly accident which occurred on April 8, 1911 at the Banner Mine, a coal mine owned by the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company near Littleton in northwest Jefferson County. 128 miners, all but five of them convicts leased from the state, lost their lives in the explosion.

Worker safety, particularly in mines that employed convict labor, had never been a priority, in the development of the Birmingham District as an industrial giant. Between 1900 and 1910 more than 1,000 people had died in mine accidents in Alabama, including 112 dead in the February 20, 1905 explosion at the Virginia City Mine and 90 fatalities in the May 5, 1910 explosion at Palos No. 3 Mine. The Banner Mine itself had suffered a fatal explosion on Thanksgiving Day, 1910, with three men killed.

Nevertheless, the Pratt Company, owned by engineer Erskine Ramsay, was considered exemplary for its use of life-saving technologies. Ramsay himself was appointed State Mine Examiner by Governor B. B. Comer in 1910.

Workers at the entrance to the Banner Mine

Pratt's Banner Mine began operation in October 1904, after the Cane Creek Branch of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad made the site accessible. Originally accessed by a slope, the mine had been improved with the addition of two shaftways with hoists and ventilation blowers. It worked the Mary Lee Seam of bituminous (soft) coal, found in two level layers separated by hard shale. The upper bed was usually left intact until the lower section was worked. When it was brought down by the destruction of pillars, concentrations of methane gas were often released. Inspectors reported that the ventilation scheme, designed by Pratt owner and engineer Erskine Ramsay, was quite advanced and rational.

The main hoistways in the mine were equipped with water sprayers to keep down dust and the interior surfaces of the passages were nearly always very damp. Though mules were used to shuttle cars underground, the main tramways, as well as lighting and coal-cutting equipment, were powered with 250-volt direct current. Feed wires were insulated except where connections were made. Blasting was done by trained shot firers using Bituminite No. 1, an explosive manufactured by the Jefferson Powder Company and stored below ground in gunny sacks in wooden tram cars parked in prescribed areas. Blowers moved approximately 180,000 cubic feet of air through the mine each minute. Supplemental fans pushed air out of stagnant pockets when necessary. Fire bosses inspected the mine workings regularly for pockets of dangerous gases.

In February 1911 the Bureau of Mines Rescue Car No. 6 visited the Banner Mine site, but officials did not have time to observe the underground workings before continuing on. That same year the Banner Mine received an influx of 300 convicts from Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company's Docena Mine. TCI had failed to turn in its paperwork to the state on time, and the convicts were reassigned by the state over the protests of president George Crawford.

Explosion and rescue efforts

This particular disaster occurred at 6:20 AM on Saturday, April 8. Miners typically began their Saturday work days earlier because they were given the afternoon off. About 170 miners were underground when the blast occurred.

Though they had felt the explosion, some workers in other parts of the mine continued their work even as workers were pulling mangled bodies from the accident site. Foreman John Cantly and assistant J. T. Massengale were outside the mine when the explosion occurred and rushed in to lead rescue efforts. They brought the unaffected miners out safely.

The crowds of loved ones who gathered at entrances after most mining accidents were absent due to the fact that most of the men were convicts living out of contact with loved ones. Nevertheless, a crowd of spectators eventually gathered to observe or assist in rescue efforts. Officials of the United States Bureau of Mines were just starting to equip their Birmingham office and, though they had some oxygen bottles and breathing masks, had no helmets or means of recharging their bottles. Full-scale efforts could not proceed, then, until Rescue Car No. 6 arrived from Chattanooga, Tennessee late that night. By the time it arrived, medical volunteers from the Wylam First Aid Team had joined the Bureau's workers, equipped with pulmotors and spirits of ammonia to revive those suffocating or unconscious.

Of the 128 dead, 114 were African American and 14 were white. 123 were convict workers and 5 were free (2 white and 3 African American). 72 of the dead convicts were from Jefferson County. One of those who died, assistant foreman O. W. Spradling, had escaped from the explosion but died from the effects of "after damp" after returning into the mine to help with rescue efforts. He was found not far from the entrance. At least 10 mules and horses also died in the mine. Most of the dead were buried in a trench dug by their fellow inmates in the on-site convict cemetery. 100 pine coffins were shipped to the site from Nashville, Tennessee.

During rescue operations, one of the coal-fired boilers operating the ventilation fans stopped working, requiring additional rescuers to bring the first party, most of whom had lost consciousness, to the surface for medical treatment. Damage to the mine itself was minimal, estimated by Ramsay at no more than $1,200, and mining activity resumed a week after the accident.

Investigation

State inspectors Robert Neill and T. W. Dickinson gave conflicting reports regarding the cause of the explosion. Dickinson believed that the accident was a gas explosion which then ignited the dry dust, allowing the inferno to propagate. Neill concluded that a "premature explosion of bituminite, aided probably by dust" was the cause, and that imperfect ventilation was not a deciding factor.

Federal inspector J. J. Rutledge's report discussed three suggested causes for the explosion and found that two of them were not supported by evidence. The remaining conclusion was that there had been a build-up of explosive gas in the 7th left chamber, which had been worked out (and was thus less likely to have been closely examined by the fire boss) and that the sudden explosion of this gas ignited coal dust which sustained the fire long enough to ignite other pockets of gas and to immediately kill some of the victims nearby. The others succumbed to the fouling of the air from the consumption of oxygen and release of smoke. Some of those who passed out could possibly have survived long enough to be rescued, but had drowned in pools of water found throughout the mine.

The coroner's inquest was held before a jury. They determined that the mine was in good condition and that the company was not at fault.

Aftermath

The convict stockade at the Banner Mine

In the aftermath of the explosion, and with the support of Governor Emmet O'Neal, Alabama's legislature undertook to strengthen its mine safety laws. The results were negligible as fatal accidents continued apace through the 1920s and 30s. The convict lease system was ended during the flush times of the late 1920s as the state was finally able to wean itself from the lucrative practice under the leadership of Governor Bibb Graves.

The Banner Mine is now a strip mine operated by the Twin Pines Coal Company and most of the surface and underground works have been obliterated. The convict cemetery was relocated nearby.

References

  • "More Than Hundred Convicts Killed in Disaster at Banner: Fatal After Damp Caused by Explosion Yesterday Morning Suffocates Scores and Frustrated the Rescuers in Work" (April 9, 1911) Birmingham Age-Herald
  • "O’Neal Indignant Over Disaster: ‘Life More Precious Than Stockholders’ Dividends’: Must Have Mine Law." (April 9, 1911) Birmingham Age-Herald
  • "Gruesome Stream of Bodies Now Pours Steadily From the Mouth of Banner Mine: Total Dead will Reach 128, Making it the Most Disastrous Explosion Which Ever Occurred in Alabama…" (April 10, 1911) Birmingham Age-Herald
  • "Martyr’s Death for Spradling" (April 10, 1911) The Birmingham News
  • "Rescue Work is Delayed by the Change in Fans: Fifty-Four Dead Above Ground at Midnight – More Expected Soon." (April 11, 1911) Birmingham Age-Herald
  • "Little damage done to the Banner Mine" (April 13, 1911) The Atlanta Constitution
  • "Work will Soon Start at Banner: Conditions will Return to Normal after the Investigation" (April 15, 1911) Birmingham Age-Herald
  • "“Coroner’s Jury Says the Company is not to Blame: Reaches a Verdict after Investigation into Death of One of the Victims of the Banner Mine Explosion” (April 16, 1911) Birmingham Age-Herald
  • "Ignition of gas causes explosion" (April 23, 1911) The Atlanta Constitution
  • Ward, Robert David, and William Warren Rogers (1987) Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
  • Yates, Elizabeth (April 11, 2006) "Mining technology in the coalfields of North-Central Alabama: Worker safety and environmental health, 1825-1915" Unpublished senior thesis. Princeton University Department of History
  • Ward, Robert David (January 21, 2010) "Banner Mine Tragedy of 1911" Encyclopedia of Alabama - accessed April 5, 2011
  • Glover, Staci Simon (Fall 2012) "When only the Heavens Wept: Death at Banner." Alabama Heritage. No. 106, pp. 24-31