Saturday paid time-and-a-half at the Montana Coal and Iron Co.’s Smith Mine between Bearcreek and Washoe.
Miners who had just emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930s eagerly worked the overtime weekend shift. They had the added incentive of doing their part to keep the World War II war machine running.
Although many were immigrants, they were a patriotic lot, according to Matt Stump, a senior in history at Montana State University Billings. Most had the cost of war bonds deducted from their wages, he said.
As 1942 drew to a close, Frank Mourich, a native of Austria, had increased his purchase of war bonds to $75 of his $132 biweekly paycheck, Stump found while researching his senior thesis.
Daylight was about an hour old when Mourich and 76 other coal miners entered the mouth of the Smith Mine on Feb. 27, 1943. On that bright winter morning, they descended about 7,000 feet into the No. 3 vein and went to work.
It was mostly a seasoned, middle-aged crew, but there were many on both ends of the age spectrum. Andrew Jorden, 21, of Red Lodge, and Adam Lee Wakenshaw, 72, an immigrant from England, toiled deep underground, as did Wakenshaw’s 39-year-old son, Robert.
No one knows whether any of these men intent on their work noticed an unusual buildup of methane gas or coal dust, and there are only theories about what ignited an explosion so powerful that it blew a 20-ton locomotive off its tracks.
But an hour and 37 minutes after their shift began, all but three of the miners were dead or dying in the worst coal mine disaster in Montana history. They were survived by 58 widows and 125 children.
Accounts from that day 70 years ago say the explosion was so deep in the mine that it was not felt at the surface.
The Billings Gazette reported the next day that Art Lantana, who was working above ground, saw smoke pouring from the opening. An emergency siren began to wail, summoning off-duty miners and relatives to the mine mouth.
Management got its first notification of the disaster below from hoisting engineer Alex Hawthorne, 55, who telephoned the surface and said: “There’s something wrong down here. I’m getting out.”
Before he got far, Hawthorne was overcome by fumes. Two others, Willard Reid and Eli Houtonen, were blown down by the force of a wind from below. A rescue force braving the deadly gas brought all three unconscious men to the surface along with two bodies. The Gazette said that they had been working in Vein No. 2.
All three survivors, who were described in the newspaper as “very sick,” were rushed to a hospital in Red Lodge, five miles away. Also hospitalized early that day were eight volunteers who were searching for survivors.
Hawthorne later said that he and the other survivors were working 4,800 feet inside the mine “when the power failed and I sensed serious trouble. I grabbed the telephone and rang desperately. At that time a cyclone of wind ascended from the mine, carrying sticks and everything that was loose. Then came the worst smell that I have ever sensed and I knew there was an explosion.”
Another miner called to him, he said, and they started out with a loaded coal car.
“That’s the last I remember until I came to here in the hospital,” Hawthorne said.
Miners from Montana Coal and Iron’s nearby Foster Mine joined rescue parties, as did crews from Klein and Roundup. An Army paratroop transport based in Helena picked up a special 14-man rescue squad from the copper mines in Butte and flew the men to Billings. The squad was ferried to the mine in screaming Montana Highway Patrol cars.
A telephone line was strung so rescue parties could keep in touch with the surface. William Romek, Smith Mine assistant manager, told The Gazette that the men were trapped behind a rock fall, but the fall wasn’t the problem. The real threat was methane gas.
“We’re hoping that they were able to get away from the danger area after the explosion and go to a safer place in the mine,” he said the day of the explosion.
Above ground, miners’ families kept a calm, hopeful watch, The Gazette reported.
“They chatted softly among themselves with their eyes seemingly glued on the mine entrance across the gulch,” a story said. “Many remained for a nightlong vigil.”
Mine employees toiled throughout the day trying to repair and secure the workings. “The workmen formed chains, keeping contact in case they were overcome in the gas-filled tunnel, which was described as ‘very bad,’ ” The Gazette reported.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross, already in a high state of preparedness because of the war, quickly established a canteen to feed the crowd gathering at the mine. Within an hour of the first call for help, the organization had set up a 50-bed emergency hospital in Red Lodge, with the assistance of local high school students.
Gov. Sam Ford arrived the next day, offering state support. A detail of state troopers was headquartered at the scene to transport workers to and from hotels and rooming houses. They also raced rescuers overcome by fumes to the emergency hospital in Red Lodge. On Sunday, doctors there told The Gazette that 62 rescuers had been treated. By Monday, the number was 118.
On Sunday, Feb. 28, experienced miners told reporters that they believed that there was just a “thousand to one chance” trapped miners were still alive. The Butte specialists, who were equipped with oxygen masks, could stay underground as long as six hours at a time, but they were unfamiliar with the mine. Regular mine employees with only filter masks could not go as deep into the tunnel.
“Without the guidance of regular coal miners, they have been unable to find their way through the maze of approximately 700 passageways,” The Gazette reported.
Desperate to save family members and friends, local miners stayed down as long as they could.
“You can work in there about five minutes and then your head gets light and your legs sag,” a rescuer worker told a reporter. “But we’re doing all right. We’re making progress and we’ll reach some of them soon.”
The rescue effort was grim.
“When exhausted rescuers come out of the mine, most of them are dazed and groggy from the effects of the gas for hours afterward," The Gazette reported. "They are taken to the Red Lodge emergency hospital and put to bed. Drugs are administered to quiet their nerves, but many grow hysterical.”
Six bodies had been recovered by Sunday. But miners’ wives kept the faith.
“Calm and steadfast, unalterable in belief that their men will come out all right, they waited side by side on benches in the improvised canteen set up in the machine shop,” Gazette reporter Kathryn Wright wrote. “Many have been there since the disaster to meet the boys ‘when they come out.’ ”
A cocker spaniel nosed among the men day after day looking in vain for his master, Bill Shepard, 69. Brownie had come to the mine entrance daily for the previous five years to walk his master home.
Robert Wakenshaw’s wife, awaiting word of her husband and her father-in-law, held her head high and her shoulders erect as she told Wright: “I know they’re coming out. I have all the confidence in the world.”
Seventeen-year-old Martha Barovich knew her widowed father, Sam, would emerge safely.
“Just doesn’t seem like it could happen to Dad,” she said. “I know they must be all right. We’re all praying for them. God will hear us. I know.”
“Joe can’t be dead,” a trapped miner’s wife said. “He’s an old hand at mining. He knows what to do. He’s way at the back. There might be fresh air.”
But there wasn’t.
In agonizing slowness over the next week, the number of bodies began to mount. The last — that of mine foreman Elmer Price, 53 — came out on March 7. He left a wife and five children.
Funeral announcements for victims of the disaster ran in The Gazette’s pages until March 19.
The final casualty of the disaster, Matt Woodward, a rescue worker suffering the effects of his efforts, died April 9. His death brought the total to 75.
It was later determined that about 30 of the men died from injuries caused by force of the explosion. Carbon monoxide and lack of oxygen killed the rest.
At least five of the doomed miners survived for an hour and a half — long enough to scrawl a few last words for their families. Three messages were found. According a wire service report, the miners wrote with chalk on rough boards.
One found near Walter Joki, 30, and John Sundar, 28, read, “Goodbye wifes and daughters. We died an easy death. Love from us both. Be good.”
Another note listed Frank Pajnich, 53; Fred Rasborschek, 61; Sundar; and Joki. They wrote “We try to do our best but couldn’t get out.”
Emil Anderson, 40, left this final message: “It’s five minutes pass 11 o’clock. Dear Agnes and children I am sorry we had to go this way — God bless you all.”