This segment features a news item from Fayette County’s past. This week we examine a story from the January 6, 1900 edition of the Daily News Standard called “Coroner’s Jury Verdict.”
An hour before sunrise on December 23, 1899, engineer Solomon Meese stood near the mouth of the Braznell Mine. As the operator of the cage that transported workers up and down the mine shaft, he’d already sent a few groups down that morning. Others had gone in before he’d arrived and were busy preparing for their shift more than a hundred feet below the surface.
When a signal came to raise the elevator, Meese laid his hand on the lever that controlled it. He then heard a strange sound come up out of the earth — a rumble, a groan — and suddenly the lever was jerked from his grasp. The door to the engine room slammed shut. Then a torrent of air carrying twisted chunks of metal, smoke, and human limbs shot up through the shaft and knocked Meese to the ground. The Daily News Standard described the moment vividly:
“There was a loud roar, like the bursting of a hundred cannon, a ripping sound of timber torn from the buildings, a pattering of debris as it settled back to the earth in a confused mass from its flight in the air; then silence . . . A gray vapor, pungent to the taste, began to pour out of the mouth of the pit, and the trained and experienced miner known what this meant.”
By the time the dust settled, blanketing the immediate area in blackness, the mine’s tipple was destroyed and the engine room’s roof was torn away. One of the cage elevators, large enough to carry eight men, had been propelled out of the shaft by the force of the explosion. Even the shed over the mine’s ventilation shaft had been blown off.
As the blast was strong enough to shake buildings in Brownsville, nearly three miles away, it wasn’t long before a crowd gathered at the entrance of the mine. Upon descending the wrecked shaft, rescuers came upon “groaning men, suffering from frightful burns” and a stable full of dead horses and mules. (At the time, animals were kept underground for pulling carts of coal.) Yet, eighteen men were immediately found alive. One recalled seeing a “blinding blue flame” shoot by just before the explosion, followed by a “train of stars” — a sparkling effect created by the ignition of coal particles in the air.
A Daily News Standard reporter intercepted a mine inspector, Henry Louttit, as he emerged from his first trip into Braznell. When asked if the mine was dangerous, Louttit evaded the question.
“Was it gaseous all the time?” the reporter pressed.
“On the quiet,” Louttit said, “it contained more gas than was reported.”
Miners had long been permitted to use open flame lanterns at Braznell, as opposed to safety lamps with enclosed flames. However, the fire boss’s logs revealed that dangerous levels of gas had been found every day at the mine beginning on October 9, 1899. At times up to 14″ of explosive or toxic gas clung to the roof of different rooms. The exception was December 22 — the day before the blast — when all of the rooms were declared safe.
Several of the men who died at Braznell left behind large families either in the U.S. or in their native countries. Four members of the Meese family were caught in the explosion: Solomon and John Meese, who survived, and Samuel and Albert Meese, who did not. Samuel Meese was so badly burned that his sister had to be brought in to identify his body. His 14-year-old son Albert, a “trapper boy” who operated doors for ventilation and movement of coal loads, survived only a short while before succumbing to his wounds.
The Daily News Standard reported that the Meeses had lived through an 1898 explosion at the nearby Empire (also called “Umpire”) and subsequently came to Braznell, “which was considered a safer mine.”
Four days after the explosion, a total of 17 bodies had been recovered. They were subsequently viewed by a coroner’s jury, who delivered the following verdict on January 6:
“[The explosion] was caused by the negligence of the mine foreman in failing to see that the mine was in a safe condition before permitting workmen to enter it . . . And we believe both the mine foreman and fire boss to be incompetent to perform their respective and responsible duties.”
The Daily News Standard expected the mine officials “to be arraigned in a few days for misdemeanor.” In the meantime, the owners of Braznell had already begun cleaning up the mine, hoping to have it operational again as soon as possible.