Remembering the Willow Grove Mine Disaster

The impact of a mine accident that took the lives of 72 men, reverberates through time and is still felt today. Belmont County continues to mourn the loss of those lives 84 years later. What began as a typical day at Hanna Coal Company’s Willow Grove No. 10 Mine, recognized as one of the country’s model mines, ended in tragedy on March 16, 1940. 

The first sign of trouble

A runaway coal train shooting out of the mine gave the first indication of the devastating explosion that resulted in the death of 72 men (including three rescuers). Those inside the mine heard a whoosh that was not loud, but forceful enough to tear doors off hinges and smash supporting girders “like they were matches.” At 11:10 a.m., the mine dispatcher called the surface, reporting smoke and fumes coming down the Main West and driving men from the underground shops where they couldn’t reach the airshaft to determine if a motor or transformer was burning.

Survivors emerge

At noon, 91 miners were rescued including 22 men overcome by afterdamp who were revived. Another 79 men, trapped for five hours, were released uninjured. Two escaped unaided. Two mine officials were killed by asphyxiation from on-sweeping smoke and fumes during rescue attempts. One of the rescuers died six days later from the effects of afterdamp. Fourteen men were treated at the Bellaire Hospital and three at Martins Ferry Hospital.  Another 33 were taken to the Martins Ferry hospital in ambulances.

Disaster draws crowd

When news of the blast reached the public, more than 3,000 people rushed to the scene, clogging highways and delaying ambulances and rescue workers. Ohio Highway patrolmen were dispatched to guard all roads to the mine entrance. Belmont County Sheriff Howard Duff and his deputies were also at the scene.

Families keep vigil

The wives and children of the trapped miners kept vigil as they waited for news, warmed by fires that burned throughout the frigid night. The disaster impacted many families as sons, fathers, brothers, and brother-in-laws worked in the mine together.

News of the explosion filled the front page of the March 22 St. Clairsville Gazette, under the large headline: Willow Grove Mine Slowly Giving Up Victims. One of the articles proclaimed that 20 bodies had been recovered at press time and over 50 remained in the mine. A map of the mine showing how miners escaped took up four columns at the top right side.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the mine in May 1936, just four years before the disaster.

First Lady’s visit recalled

The front page also included a photo of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the mine in May 1936. During her visit, she exclaimed that it was “too clean to be a coal mine.” The Hanna Coal Company purchased the mine in 1931, making it one of the country’s best-equipped and modern mines. They had a commendable safety record and an active safety program.

Two mistakenly reported missing

Three days after the disaster, two of the men listed as missing, Charles Klusky and Clarence Gillespie, reported to the mine office. Neither reported to work that day, but their lamps were missing so it was assumed they worked that day. It was reported in the April 5 edition that mining equipment was stolen. Hanna Co. officials reported most of the stolen items such as gas lamps, miner’s lamps, and caps, were “taken by persons seeking souvenirs.”

Victim court-marshaled Hitler

An article in the March 29, 1940 edition of the St. Clairsville Gazette notes that one of the men killed in the explosion was William Shetek. As a lieutenant in the Austrian Army, Shetek court-martialed Adolf Hiter, a corporal at the time. After the war, Shetek came to America, changed his name to Schiller, and became a shot-firer at Willow Grove Mine.  Schiller’s wife gave birth to their sixth child one week after the accident.

Members of the Willow Grove Mine Tipple Crew are pictured in 1936. Just four years later, the mine was the site of a tragic explosion that killed 72 men.

Victims of the Willow Grove Mine Explosion:

Mike August, 40 Lafferty; Robert Bakosh, 32, Neffs; Cap Benson, 50, Willow grove; Charles Bobka, 47, Neffs; Martin Bobka, 28, Neffs; George Bringmann, 24, Bellaire; Charles L. Carroll, 50, St. Clairsville; John Celuch, 46, Fairpoint; David Chini, 27, Bannock; Elmer Clark, 46, Stewartsville; Emilio Dalpiaz, 38, Lafferty; Joseph Dalpiaz, 38, Lafferty; Constantino Daroma, 53, Neffs; Ray Davis, 50, Bridgeport; John Demkowicz, 37, Neffs; John Demopolos, 54, Neffs; Frank Dopkiss, 36, Maynard; Albert Eastham, 36, Neffs; Russell Fedon, 37, Neffs; Walter Franc, 50, St. Clairsville; George Fulton, 29, Warnock; William Gardner, 57, St. Clairsville; John Garlaga, 37, Stewartsville; Andrew Garek, 53, Midway; Cecil W. Grimes, 30, St. Clairsville; Joe Hess, 43, Neffs; Andy Hobart, 41, Midway; Lawrence Hrabak, 46, Maynard; Wayne Hynes, 29, St. Clairsville; Cornelius Jobes, 25, St. Clairsville; Mitchell Jobes, 44, Midway; Albert Kanopsic, 33, St. Clairsville; Paul Kasarda, 46, Midway; Garrett Kelley, 38, Willow Grove; Harry Klee, 38, Neffs; John Knapski, 38, Bannock; Joseph W. Kresach, 45, Fairpoint; Emmett Krotky, 38, Neffs; Paul Kulevich, Jr., 27, Willow Grove; Charles Lupi, 42, Bellaire; John Marks, 33, Neffs; Ross McFadden, 54, Neffs; John McFetridge, 37, Stewartsville; John Miketo, 45, Belmont; Earl Pack, 30, Neffs; Frank Pasco, 49, Neffs; Mark Passmore, 52, Glencoe, Edwin Patterson, 34, Bellaire; Phillip Paytash, 30, Lafferty; Steve Petran, 54, Neffs; Mike Pokerino, 30, Bannock; Joe Prosek, 30, Bellaire; John H. Richards, 44, St. Clairsville; Joe Riddle, 52, St. Clairsville; Pete Rinkes, 36, St. Clairsville; Joseph Roque, 45, St. Clairsville; Louis Roque, 42, St. Clairsville; Andy Rudol, 34, Neffs; Howard Sanders, 52, St. Clairsville; Mike Serdula, 62, Midway; William Schittek/Schiller, 38, Neffs; Andy Sklenicka, 26, Fairpoint; John Sklenicka, 24, Fairpoint, Walter Slater, 29, Bannock; Ralph Sutton, 40, St. Clairsville; Paul L. Taylor, 28, St. Clairsville; Andy Valocik, 31, Neffs; Rudolph Vrba, 47, Bellaire; James Warfield, 58, Neffs; Stanley Wasielewski, 52, Lafferty; Clarence Wiggins, 35, Bellaire, and Ed Zaleski, 26, Neffs.

Final victims removed

 It took 12 days for rescue workers to remove all 72 victims. The March 29 Gazette reported that the last three bodies were removed on Thursday, March 28  at 6:15 a.m. They were Charles Bobak of Willow Grove and Andy Garek of St. Clairsville. Two hours before, Charles Lupi of Bellaire was brought to the surface. The same edition contained 20 obituaries for mine victims.

Disaster payments of half a million

Another front-page article in the March 29 Gazette said mine disaster payments were estimated by Industrial Commission representatives to total $500,000. The total included claims to the families of the 72 victims as well as the miners who were injured and unable to work. It was noted in the article that the payments were higher because the mine had produced steadily with above-average earnings.

Investigation begins

Investigation of the explosion began on Thursday, March 28 by the Federal Bureau of Mines and the Ohio Mining Department. The United Mine Workers also had a representative involved in the investigation. The Bureau of Mines ruled the cause of the explosion was an excessive shot of black powder that stirred up coal dust and ignited a flame. Gas at the face of the mine, and black powder in a storage box added to the explosion’s impact.  The mine was classified as non-gaseous, thus black blasting powder was used as permitted in Ohio despite the United States Department of Mines condemning its use. In May, Hanna officials announced it had adopted carbon dioxide explosives and was experimenting with a hydraulic process of breaking loose coal without explosives.

Thousands attend memorial

The United Mine Workers sponsored a memorial service on April 28, 1940, at the Neffs baseball park with 5,000 people in attendance. Ohio Governor John Bricker and Congressman Earl Lewis were two of the dignitaries who spoke. The Friday, May 3 edition of the St. Clairsville Gazette noted that traffic was so great that 15 state patrol officers were needed and those arriving late had to park more than a mile away and walk to the baseball park.

The United Mine Workers of America placed a new memorial stone and statue at the site in 2021.

Gone but not forgotten

This year will mark the 84th Anniversary of the Willow Grove Mine Explosion. The UMWA will host a memorial service on Saturday, March 9 at 11 a.m. at the memorial site, 65824 Willow Grove Rd., St. Clairsville. The United Mine Workers of America placed a new memorial stone and statue at the site in 2021. The UMWA District 31 Subdistrict 6 purchased the stone memorial, and an individual donated the statue. In 2023, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources placed a historical marker at the site.

Donations for Memorial

Those who wish to donate money for site maintenance and future improvements can send a check to: Friends of Willow Grove Memorial, 2519 County Highway 16, Rayland, OH 43943.