Annual Program Honors Victims Of Knox Mine Disaster
JENKINS TWP. — For Bill Best, the enduring symbols of the Knox Mine Disaster are the men who helped their fellow workers escape as the river rushed in.
“These guys, they’re my heroes,” he said.
Stories like the one of Joe Stella, who kept a group of miners together and led them to safety, and of Amedeo Pancotti, who climbed an air shaft to escape and call for help, are some of the acts of bravery from Jan. 22, 1959.
Best, 54, of West Pittston, was among those who gathered Sunday to remember the tragedy, which killed 12 people.
The annual commemoration started at Baloga Funeral Home. Some people also visited the site where mine collapsed, allowing the river to rush in, and an airshaft that was a passageway to safety to many of the men trapped underground.
Best is the president of the Huber Breaker Preservation Society. He became interested in mining history when he learned that his ancestors worked in the industry. Four worked in mines, and one worked in a coal breaker.
The work of those coal miners fueled American industry and heated homes across the country. We owe them a debt, Best said.
“The people who stayed here were people who embraced the work, however dangerous it was. It was skilled work,” he said. “They had to know a lot about working underground safely to do it.”
The annual commemoration of the Knox Mine Disaster is one event in Anthracite Mining Heritage Month.
Several other events are still planned, including the screening of a documentary about the disaster this Tuesday at the Kirby Center for the Creative Arts at Wyoming Seminary.
It’s quite a history, said Bob Wolensky, an adjunct professor at King’s College.
He first became interested in the Knox Mine Disaster when he started collecting the oral history of hundreds of Northeast Pennsylvanians in the 1980s. As he listened to story after story, he kept hearing about the disaster in Jenkins Twp. He would go on to write two books, including one with Bill Hastie, the last miner who worked at the Knox Coal Company.
Today, communities are reprocessing culm banks, repairing mine subsidence and trying to clean rivers and streams.
“We can take care of all the environmental issues, the scars that have remained, but it’s part of the culture around here. Anthracite is deep in the culture of this community,” he said.
He pointed to recent FBI investigations in Scranton and the investigations in Wilkes-Barre that led to the kids-for-cash judicial scandal as remnants of an industry in which people sometimes “played fast and loose.”
It was that philosophy that saw mine operators at the Knox Coal Company’s site direct diggers toward the surface until the river broke through some 60 years ago.
Contact the writer:
Tuesday is the 60th anniversary of the Knox Mine Disaster.
“The Knox Mine Disaster,” a film by David and Albert Brocca, will premiere Tuesday at the Kirby Center for the Creative Arts at Wyoming Seminary, 260 N. Sprague Ave., Kingston. Tickets must be purchased in advance either online at www.knoxminedisaster.com, or by calling the box office at 570-270-2190; general admission only; doors open at 6:30 p.m., premiere starts at 7.
The filmmakers will participate in a question and answer session following the showing.