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Eccles Number 5: Testimony of a survivor

Jim Keith and his son were among ten survivors of the March 8, 1926, explosion at the Eccles Number 5 mine. Nineteen other men died, but Keith’s group barricaded themselves into a safe place until help arrived. He later gave powerful testimony to the coroner’s jury which convened to look into the tragedy. 

     Q: After you had completed the barricades, what did you do?

     A: There was lots of talk.  Some of them thought we would never get out.  Mr. Davis said the men on the outside would seal the shafts and leave us in, and would not try to get us out.

     Q: Did you think the men on the outside would do this, Mr. Keith?

     A: No sir.  I knew they would try to save us.  I knew how many friends I had on the outside, men I had been working with for years, and I knew they would save us if it was possible.  I felt sure we would get out all right if we would only stay there and wait for them to come and find us.  I told them who I thought would be the first ones to come to help us.

     Q: What did you do then?

     A: We all laid down except the night boss, Davis.  He prayed continually and wrote a letter to his wife telling her goodbye.

     Q: What did you do then, Mr. Keith?

     A:  I told them we had better line the stoppings.  Davis told the men they only had air enough to last them for about 40 minutes and for them all to pray, and there was no hope for them.

     Q: Did they all pray then?

     A:  They all prayed except me.  My boy got scared then and began to cry.  You see, he is only 17 years old.  I took him off to one side and told him not to be afraid – that he and me was coming out of there all right, even if the rest didn’t.  I told him that we could starve along on what little food we had and that we had enough good air to last us for two or three weeks.

     Q: Did that satisfy him then?

     A: Yes sir; he laid down and went off to sleep then.

     Q: Didn’t you pray then?

     A: No sir; I told Davis that I had not prayed before I got into that fix, and that the Lord wouldn’t pay much attention to a prayer that a man was scared into.

     Q: What did you do then, Mr. Keith?

     A: I was cold and I backed up against the colored fellow, McKenzie, and listened to the rest to the men praying.

     Q: What were you doing when you first heard the rescue party?

     A: I was laying down when I heard them coming.  I could hear them walking.  I mentioned it to some of the others, and we heard them holler.  I couldn’t hear what they said, because they had on their helmets.  I asked them if they wanted us to tear down the barricade, and they said yes.

     Q: Who were last to leave the barricade?

     A: [J.W.] Cales, my son and myself.  My boy was the last to get out, being right behind me.

Source: Bob Miller, The Charleston Gazette, February 14, 2010.

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