Explosions of Firedamp
Death in the Mine
excerpted from
The Big Bonanza

by Dan DeQuille
of the Territorial Enterprise

Dan DeQuille
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On the 20th of September 1873, about three o'clock in the morning a second fire and series of explosions occurred in the Yellow-Jacket mine, by which six men lost their lives and several were seriously injured.

This fire originated in a winze on the thirteen-hundred-foot level of the mine. The winze was directly over the forge of an underground blacksmith's shop, for which it served as a chimney. The fire seems to have been burning in the woodwork of this winze in a smoldering way, generating a quantity of gas, and when an assistant blacksmith approached with a lighted lantern in his hand, a heavy explosion occured. A great quantity of smoke rushed up the main shaft and hung in a black cloud over the works. When this was seen, an alarm of fire was sounded on the surface, and soon there were over two thousand persons collected about the mine. Among the wives, children, and relations of those in the mines were enacted the same heart-rending scenes as on the occasion of the first great fire in April 1869. When the firemen reached the works, the fatal mistake was made of throwing water down the shaft, thus driving the smoke and gases back upon the men in the lower levels and causing the loss of life. This was stopped by Captain Taylor, superintendent of the mine, as soon as he arrived on the ground.

About this time a man was sent to the old shaft of the mine, some distance above on the hill, to see that all was right there. Doors were shut down over the mouth of this shaft, and while the man was looking to see that these were properly closed, he took the candle from his lantern and held it over the shaft. As he did so, he saw a streak of fire flash along up a post that stood in the middle of the shaft, between the folding doors. Thinking that a quantity of lint on the corner of the post had taken fire, he struck at it with his hat to blow it out. As he did this, an explosion occurred that shook the whole town. A sheet of flame darted from the mouth of the shaft, and the man, who was still over it, hat in hand, was thrown backwards a distance of several feet.

This second explosion, which caused the solid earth to rock, not only added greatly to the terror of those on the surface, but sent sheets of flame through all the mines as far as the Belcher, a distance of two thousand feet. Men who were in the Crown Point mine at the moment stated that this fire seemed a solid mass that filled all the space about them and that it flashed toward and past them as swiftly as lightning. At the same time the concussion that accompanied the flash was so great as to knock them down and drive them along the ground for a considerable distance. These streams of fire did not penetrate into the cross-drifts, but darted straight southward along the main drifts and galleries, owing to which fact, doubtless, several miners who happened to be in cross-drifts escaped being killed or seriously injured. To add to the terrors of the situation, all of the lights were blown out by the explosions, and the lower levels of the mines were everywhere in total darkness.

Those who lost their lives died from asphyxia, while those who were injured were burned by the sheets of flame that darted through the several mines. The fire burned and stripped the shirts entirely off the backs of some of the men, and those who were touched by any part of the flame lost their whiskers, eyebrows, and the greater part of their hair.

There being several hundred men in the mines, the utmost consternation prevailed when the first explosion occurred, and the smell of smoke and gases -- a smell well remembered by the old miners -- swept through the lower levels; but the work of hoisting these men to the surface was performed at the several shafts with safety, precision, and almost lightning swiftness. Notwithstanding the excitement that prevailed all about them, the engineers never for a single instant lost their presence of mind. They answered every tap of the signal-bells as promptly and kept their eyes as steadfastly fixed upon the marks on their cables as though nothing were wrong below. The cages and "giraffes" were rushed up and down the shafts and inclines with their living freight at a rate of speed that under ordinary circumstances would have been simply terrific. But by no means was this work too rapidly performed to suit the men who were fleeing up from the fiery furnace of the regions below.

It luckily happened that the winze in which this fire raged was surrounded on all sides by solid rock; therefore when the timbers it contained were consumed, the fire died out. The man who at first approached the smoldering winze with his lantern was found lying dead at a distance of about two hundred feet from it, having been asphyxiated. Men who die of asphyxia in the mines look like living men if brought to the surface at any time within a few hours after life is extinct. Their cheeks are flushed and roseate, and their bodies are as limp as though they were still alive. With their eyes closed, they appear to be men in a fever, lying in a sound sleep. It is a painless death. Several miners who were brought to the surface in an unconscious state, and who would no doubt have died in a few minutes had they been left in the mine, assert that a sensation of faintness was all they experienced. They do not even remember falling to the ground; but all are very sick after regaining their senses.

As it would have been impossible for the small fire in the winze to have generated such immense quantities of inflammable gases as must have been consumed in the two explosions that occurred during this last fire in the Yellow-Jacket mine, many men are of the opinion that a small quantity of the gas from pinewood, mingled with gases already in the mines, rendered the whole explosive. In this instance some such accidental compound must have been formed. Common air being mingled with the gases probably had much to do with causing the explosions.

On the morning of May 24, 1874 the hoisting-works of the Succor Mining Company, near Silver City, were destroyed by fire, and two miners who were at work in the shaft at the time lost their lives. The fire was kindled by some cartridges of giant-powder that had been left lying on the boiler. The cartridges did not explode, but simply burned. They were about a dozen in number, enough to have blown the works to atoms had they exploded. They burned very rapidly, throwing up a fountain of fire. The flames were intensely bright, and everywhere the jets struck, they set fire to the woodwork. The roof and all that part of the works about the boilers were on fire in an instant.

The only men in the works were the engineer and the carman. Two miners were at work at the bottom of the shaft, five hundred feet below the surface. The engineer and carman shook the cable attached to the hoisting tub, which was at the bottom of the shaft, as a signal for the men below to come up; also shouted to them, but could not make them understand their danger. Soon the two men were driven out of the building, which was speedily consumed.

Two days later, when the fire in the timbers of the upper part of the shaft had been extinguished, a windlass was rigged and men were lowered to see how things looked below. It was not expected that the bodies of the dead miners would be found, as much earth had caved from the top of the shaft, and its bottom was supposed to be filled to the depth of twenty or thirty feet with broken timbers, rocks, and earth. Contrary to the general expectation, the men had not been lowered a great distance into the shaft before they signaled those above at stop; they then shouted up the shaft that the bodies were found. A large crowd had collected about the shaft, and when this unexpected report came up, the excitement was great.

The bodies of the poor fellows were discovered at the pump station - a recess some feet square in one side of the shaft, to which point they had ascended by almost superhuman exertions. This pump station was two hundred and sixty-five feet above the bottom of the shaft, and the whole of this great distance the men had climbed in their desperate struggle for life, with nothing to cling to but the slight cracks between the timbers walling the sides. Considering the small and uncertain hold afforded by the timbers of the shaft, their climbing to such a height was a feat bordering on the miraculous and one which could only have been performed by young and active men, as both were. Both men had died from asphyxia. Neither their bodies nor their clothing were scorched.

In the pump station they were protected from the falling brands and beams from the burning building, and there they had remained till suffocated by the deadly gases that settled down into the shaft. The face of one of the men was rosy and as natural as in life, while that of the other, who lay in the outer part of the station, was black and frightfully swollen.

An inquest was held, and the verdict of the coroner's jury was
that the men who lost their lives by the fire, James Billings and James Rickard came to their death by suffocation caused by the burning of the Succor hoisting-works and part of the shaft, said fire having been caused by the combustion of giant-powder which was kept on the top of one of the boilers, and we strongly deprecate the custom prevalent in many mines of keeping giant-powder on the boilers about the works.

And well they might find fault with this practice of cooking giant-powder on the tops of boilers; also they might mildly suggest that the custom of thawing frozen giant-powder and nitroglycerine on stoves and at the forges of blacksmith's shops is a thing not to be encouraged. Several, however, have prospected about until they have found this out for themselves. It is now probably well-known in the other world, as a few of those best informed on the point have gone there.

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Bridget E. Smith, editor & publisher

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