Jay Copp 2016-12-28 05:03:58
A CLUB’S ACTIONS IN ITS GRIEF-STRICKEN TOWN EPITOMIZE LIONS’ SERVICE. On March 25, 1947, a surprisingly cold day in southern Illinois, 142 miners were at work in the No. 5 mine in Centralia. The miners toiled as far as 537 feet below the ground on this Tuesday. At 3:26 p.m., near the end of their shift, a violent explosion rocked the No. 5. A half mile from the flash point, instantly aware of the danger, 14 miners immediately dropped their aluminum dinner buckets. They scrambled into a side room and lay down on the floor where the air would support life the longest. They had no illusions about their prospects. In the damp darkness, they scrawled brief notes to loved ones. Raymond Buehne, 30, father of three, addressed his wife by her nickname: “Chub. God bless you all, Beanie, 4:30.” A note from another miner read, “I love you all and please take care of them and raise them as a good Christian.” Another wrote “see about security insurance.” Joe Bryant, whose 12th baby was due soon, wrote: “My Dear Wife good By. Name Baby Joe so you will have a Joe love all dad.” In the hours and days after the disaster, the mine yard was a wild mix of confusion, dread and grief. Hundreds from the miners’ families gathered, and a hush came over the crowd each time the bell at the shaft sounded, the cage came rumbling up and men carried away another body on a stretcher. In the dim washhouse, scores of wives sat on the benches where the miners changed their clothes. Recognizing their husbands’ garments, they silently sat beneath the clothing suspended above them on chains and pulleys. None of the 14 miners in the side room survived. Altogether, 111 miners died. The tragedy was made even more heartbreaking because mine owners and state safety officials had ignored dozens of reports of unsafe conditions. The disaster in the quiet, close-knit Midwestern town transfixed the nation, inspired protest singer Woody Guthrie to pen a memorable ballad and led to groundbreaking mining safety regulation laws. For Lions, the story is notable because of the role played by Centralia Lions. In the grim days that followed, as bodies needed to be identified and families notified and comforted, Lions spared families from the worst of the horror. They brought kindness and caring to those who needed it most. A DELICATE TASK About 70 miles east of St. Louis, set in the flat prairies of Illinois under which rested huge coal deposits, Centralia was a hardscrabble town of 13,000 in the late 1940s. Money for anything but the basics was in short supply. One year the Centralia High School basketball team qualified for the state tournament but wore ragged, discarded uniforms. “The players looked like a bunch of orphans,” a Chicago sportswriter cracked, and the name stuck— the Centralia High School Orphans. This was a railroad town, presumptuously named by the owners of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1853 as the center of its rail empire. Men made decent money making railroad cars in the factory. Paying better, but more dangerous, was work in the mines. Joe Bryant, 48, first started in the mines when he was 14. He worked for five years in oil fields in Indiana but needed to return to the mine as his family and expenses grew. His oldest son, Harold, joined him in the mine after being discharged from the Army in 1945. He was married with a child on the way. On the morning of March 25, Harold was still smarting from a foot smashed by falling rock. Joe was not feeling well either—all his teeth had just been pulled. The two rode to work together, and Joe’s wife suggested they take the day off. But Joe was worried the union would call a strike soon, and he wanted to work while he could. Also in the mine that day were the Ballantini brothers, Pete and Joe. After immigrating to America by stowing away in a ship, they had toiled in the mines for more than 30 years. Despite the grime and dirt, they tried to maintain their dignity. Many nights, Pete washed off his coal dust and put on a three-piece suit. Many of the miners were Italians, and their families had worked the mines for generations. They understood what was at stake every shift. Wives, mothers, girlfriends, sisters and daughters said a silent prayer in the early morning hours as they packed the lunch pails of their men. When the sirens blew on March 25, the women knew. They grabbed their babies and ran through the cold March wind to the gate. Smoke was billowing out of the No. 5. Mine officials of the Centralia Coal Company sternly ordered onlookers to stand back. Bodies, body parts and personal effects began to be lifted out of the mass grave. It began to rain, which turned into a wet snow as the night wore on. Posted on the corners of a mine warehouse, the families could see an official inspection notice from Driscoll Scanlan, an Illinois mine inspector. Diligent in his work and increasingly frustrated and alarmed, Scanlan had warned his superiors repeatedly for five years that the mine had an excessive build-up of coal dust that could explode unless the dust was cleared. Wives and mothers of miners trapped by the explosion in the Centralia mine wait in the company washhouse. Hanging above them is miners’ clothing. More than anyone, the miners themselves understood the dangerous conditions. On March 3, four of the miners wrote a letter to popular Governor Dwight Green begging him to “Please Save Our Lives.” The letter was ignored. Three of those four men would die on March 25. After the disaster, aid workers quickly descended on the scene. Rescuers brought blood plasma. Cots arrived from an Army base near Belleville. Nuns comforted the injured, and priests gave last rites. The mine owners asked the Red Cross to handle the canteen services. But the Red Cross could do only so much. So Fred Wham, the chairman of the Centralia chapter, huddled with Lions. As in other small towns, members of the Centralia Lions tended to be relatively prosperous. They were businessmen, bankers and insurance men. Well-known and well-regarded, they helped give the town a sense of unity. The miners had died from either the violent explosion or the gas. Those killed by the former were mangled beyond facial identification. Those who died from the latter were horribly bloated and also beyond recognition. Wham made a request: could the Lions help identify the bodies? The Lions worked day and night for five days. They began by visiting each family of the men who had not returned. They offered heartfelt condolences. This was a small town where neighbor knew neighbor. Residents went to the same churches and schools and shopped in the same stores. The kids played alley baseball together, and the young people danced in the parking lot of a music hall in nearby Herrin. Perhaps it would have been easier if the Lions did not know the families. But often they did. Lions proceeded with their delicate task. Did their loved one wear glasses or a ring or maybe carry a watch? Did they own a special cigarette case or a pipe? Were any of their teeth missing? They gathered as much information as they could and then met with multiple morticians, as the men were called then. In some instances, the identity of a miner became quickly obvious. In others, it took some guesswork and some process of elimination before arriving at certainty. The final task of the Lions was the most wrenching: to return to the home of the family to confirm the sad news. Among the many dead they helped identify was Joe Ballantini, the longtime Italian miner. That day was seared into the memory of his daughter, Elaine Ballantini Ziegler. “Someone from the Lions club came by as a part of the rescue effort and asked if I could identify the ring. I looked at it and said it belonged to my dad. They had taken it off his body. That was the only way they could identify the body,” said Ziegler, now deceased, in a book about the disaster. ‘Everyone was so kind. Everyone pulled together.’ As for his brother, Pete, he was among the first group of 16 dead miners who were identified. The family was not able to bury him for 10 days. His body lay in an open coffin in the family home as they waited for space both at a funeral parlor and at a cemetery. The saga of the Bryants was especially poignant. The night after the explosion two Lions went to Harold’s house and spoke to his wife, Ruth, just 17. They asked what clothes he was wearing. Ruth told them what she knew and then waited for several days. Finally, aware that all the bodies had been taken up from the mine, she drove to the Greyhound bus garage where unidentified men lay. The man in charge would not let her enter. So her brother went in and returned with a belt. Ruth confirmed it was her husband’s. “He’s got on a red jacket,” her brother said. “It’s him,” she whispered. Late on Saturday, five days after the explosion, Lions met with Joe Bryant’s wife, Lydian, a stout woman with weary features, and asked how he had been dressed. Overalls and a white shirt, she told them. He was carrying a pocketknife, a white cigarette case and a whistle with a chain, she added. The Lions returned at 9 the next morning with her husband’s cigarette case and his whistle. In his last moments, Joe concerned himself with extending solace to grieving families. In his pocket, written on a timecard, was a message: “Look in everybody’s pockets. We all have notes. Give them to our wives.” Besides that message and the one to his wife, Joe also wrote a message to his children: “Sammie, Raymond Be good Boys Jackie [his nickname for Harold who was already dead a half-mile away] Melvin Help Mom Please your father Joe Bryant O Lord Help Me.” Sixty-nine years later, Sammie Bryant, 79, has a copy of his father’s dying message to him. Sammie lives in Sandoval six miles from the old mine. He also has a copy of the note his dad wrote to his mom asking to name the baby “Joe.” His mom had a girl. She named her Joedy. Sammie does not remember the Lions coming to their home. He may have been asleep. But he distinctly recalls the caring of neighbors and friends after the tragedy. “The whole area was in mourning,” he recently told the LION Magazine. “Everyone was so kind. Everyone pulled together.” The disaster left 99 widows and 78 children without fathers. The union’s new welfare fund that had just passed after a miners’ strike the previous year did not have enough money in it to provide payments. A fund started by the mayor of Centralia brought in $20,000 with donations that came nationwide. Divided among the families, that sum was barely enough to bury the dead. It was left for most families to fend for themselves and for the community to do what it could. “A lot of the women had to take in ironing and washing,” says Becky Ault, 74, a lifetime resident, former mayor, director of the Centralia Area Historical Society and mother of Lion Zach Roeckman. “The mine owners did nothing, but people looked out for each other. It was that kind of community.” REMEMBERING—AND FORGETTING Despite their uniforms, the Orphans proved to be skilled at basketball. Drive to Centralia today and a green roadside sign greets visitors: “Home of the Winningest H. S. Basketball Team in the Nation.” The Orphans’ trip to the state finals was the first of many. Much like the 1940s, Centralia is getting by. Prosperity never quite arrived. Small white-frame homes, often older and bedraggled, line the streets. Downtown has a handful of shops. The railroad left years ago. The official investigations into the blast revealed that the explosion was caused when a spark of unknown origin ignited the built-up coal dust, just as the inspector Scanlan had predicted. Bell & Zoller received a $1,000 fine. They paid it and promptly sold the mine to the Peabody Coal Company. The company closed the mine in 1949, laying the blame on “the high cost of mining coal in an old mine.” The mine’s structures—the framework for the elevator cage, the washhouse and the warehouse—are long gone. Several hundred yards from its approximate location is a park with a granite memorial, dedicated on March 25, 2009, with the names of the miners. They did not die totally in vain. The memorial notes that “ultimately the result was the passage of new mining safety regulations for the industry.” The lengthy dedication in 2009 included the singing of “The Dying Miner,” written by Woody Guthrie weeks after the disaster. “It looks like the end for me/And all of my buddies I see/We’re all writing letters/To the children we love/Please carry our word to our wives.” Speaking at the dedication in 2009 was Lion Jackie “Butch” Mathus, the mayor of Wamac, the tiny town adjoining Centralia where the marker stands. Helping to plan the event was Lion Hugh Moran, the current owner of the Moran- Queen Boggs Funeral Home in Centralia and the secretary of the Central City Centralia Lions Club. (His club chartered in 1965 after the Centralia Lions Club ended.) In 1947, Moran’s funeral home, then under a different name, held 33 of the miners’ funerals. A 50-year memorial service was held in 1997. More than 800 people at Centralia High School sang “The Dying Miner” and hymns such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Eight widows and several survivors showed up, including Joe Vancil, who bumped into another survivor. “They just looked at each other and started crying,” says Ault, who planned the ceremony. “They had not seen each other in years, and one saved the life of the other [Joe]. He’d found him and carried him out of the mine.” Vancil, the last survivor, died in 2010 in nearby Du Quoin. The last widow, Lelah Garron, died in 2009 at age 97. Still, many Centralians have a direct connection to the disaster—not surprising because of the high death toll and the tendency of people to live their entire lives here. Charles Woolbright, a Central City Lion, was 12 years old in 1947. His father, Clarence “Tib” Woolbright, the Marion County sheriff, rushed to the site before any of the dead were brought up. An uncle, John Pick Jr. Was in the mine and survived, but John’s father didn’t, nor did Charles’ wife’s uncle. Notes to his family were found in Joe Bryant’s pockets. One read: “My Dear Wife good By. Name Baby Joe so you will have a Joe love all dad.” Another read: “Sammie, Raymond Be good Boys Jackie [his nickname for Harold who was already dead a half-mile away] Melvin Help Mom Please your father Joe Bryant O Lord Help Me.” A. J. Ballantini, the grandson of Pete and a Centralia resident, recalls his father telling him how this catastrophe affected his family—eight kids without a father. Their mother had never worked outside of the home. They all pitched in to get by. Sammie Bryant also remembers the hard times. His mother received $94 a month from his father’s Social Security, a new program started in 1944, plus $90 a month from her husband’s life insurance policy. “She always wondered where our next meal was coming from, but I was able to supply all of the meat for our family through my hunting and trapping,” he says. Memories are preserved as well at the Centralia Area Historical Society, a three-story building downtown. A room dedicated to the disaster displays miners’ hats and lanterns, weathered numbered metal tokens for their belongings, a clock frozen at 3:26 and a Life magazine story on the disaster. Ault, the museum director, was five when the mine blew up. “I remember my mom and dad talking about it,” she says. Ault is indicative of the arc of memory of the tragedy. Senior citizens recall the event and personally know affected families. Middleaged people typically know about it and may know of a family that was involved. Younger people or people relatively new in town are the least likely to know details of the tragedy. It’s curious what is remembered, who remembers what and what is not remembered. The LION Magazine in 1947 detailed the role of Lions in the disaster. Decades later what Lions did has not been remembered. The historian Ault was not aware of it. Nor was Lion Moran, the funeral home owner. The Lions clubhouse has a wall full of plaques of past presidents, but the clubhouse contains no indicator of the Lions’ role in the town’s most significant event. But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe, too, that’s perfectly appropriate in commemorating Lions’ centennial: formal projects may be remembered but the innumerable acts of kindness of Lions, the quintessential hallmarks of Lions, fade into oblivion. Maybe it’s enough to know that Lions will be there when disaster strikes or when needs present themselves. “The Lions had a standing in town. People were comfortable with them doing that [visiting grieving families],” says Moran. “When I read the LION, when there is a tsunami or earthquake, the Lions are there helping. They were there after Katrina. It’s not any different.” Pat Lofthouse contributed to this story. Sources: writers’ interviews; “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” John Bartlow Martin, Harper’s Magazine, March 1948; and “Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters,” Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.
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