The Red Jacket Mine Explosion
On a quiet Friday afternoon April 22, 1938, the tranquility of our remote region was interrupted by a series of explosions that shook the mountains and altered lives. The night crew had reported for a shift at 4:30 p.m. at the Red Jacket Mine at Hanger, Virginia.
The fact that the mine was the source of the explosion was immediately evident. Flames issued from several of the openings into the drift mine, debris was spread at least one-half mile and much of the mountain ridge was left coated in black soot. The force of the explosion was found to have moved two eight-ton locomotives just outside a mine entrance from their tracks.
Remarkably, many brave souls made their way up the steep mountain to assist and save victims. No one was sure how many men had made it inside before the explosion occurred. Mine officials were notified by telephone of the disaster and both rescue workers and equipment were dispatched to the area. Within 8 hours of the explosion, rescue workers begin to move into the mine in 30-minute shifts due to the poor air quality.
Sadly, it was quickly apparent that no man left inside the mine could have survived. The explosion likely killed the miners instantly. Several were so badly burned that the numbered electric cap lights which they signed out at the beginning of the shift were used to identify their remains.
The first two victims recovered were outside the mine at the time of the explosion operating the motor ferrying men inside the mountain. J.L. Bevins (motorman) and Coy Reed (brakeman) were decapitated by the motor when the explosion occurred.
Two other men (J.W. Elam and Clarence Combs) outside of the mine sustained life-threatening injuries and were transported to Mattie Williams House in Richlands, Virginia.
Interestingly, the cause of the explosion was immediately reported to be a ‘dust explosion.’ The culprit that sparked the dust was an intentional blast set by miners to clear a large piece of slate rock inhibiting their Joy miner from extracting coal. Miners who worked the day shift on Apr 22, 1938, would testify that they had ignited two previous explosions to try and clear the same slate. Investigators would conclude the way the dynamite was placed and lit with electricity was against regulations.
The mine operation at Red Jacket was only a few months old having opened in the Fall of 1937 and considered a thoroughly modern operation for the time. Improved communication, safety training, and more accessible emergency equipment were a few of the recommendations made by officials for a safer future.
Ultimately, 45 men lost their lives as they toiled to earn a living to support themselves and their families. It was the worst mining disaster of 1938. Apr 22, 2023, marks the 85th anniversary of this tragedy. Few people are alive today with any firsthand recollections of that fateful day. Most immediate ancestors of the miners killed have also passed on. No memorial yet marks the location or exists to honor the men who lost their lives. Instead, I ask you to take time to remember these men and how their sudden violent deaths altered the lives of their loved ones.
To commemorate the 85th anniversary of the tragedy and honor the men who lost their lives, we are highlighting coal artifacts and information in our Local History section beginning in March. The display will include a short slideshow about the Apr 22nd explosion, the news coverage, and investigations that followed.
Furthermore, the library recently received a copy of the Red Jacketeer from Williamson Public Library in West Virginia. The newsletter published from 1945 through 1952 is available to view at the library.
If you are unable to visit our library in person you may peruse the following links at your leisure. On the 33rd anniversary of the explosion, the Virginia Mountaineer printed an excerpt of the story the Bluefield Telegraph ran on Apr 24, 1938, reportedly transcribed from a copy saved by survivor J.W. “Slim” Elam. Click here to view the article on our Digital History Archive. You may also be interested to view relevant Good Ole’ Days columns from Mar 4, 1982, and Sep 7, 1989.
Additionally, you may search historic newspapers on Heritage Hub for articles from publications in 1938.