JENKINS TWP. — Monday marked the 59th anniversary of the day the Susquehanna River broke through the ceiling of the Knox Mine, killing 12 men.
An additional 69 miners were able to escape as the river’s icy water rushed into the mine.
Dozens of area residents gathered Jan. 21 in Port Griffith to remember those lost in the Knox Mine Disaster.
Gathered around a stone memorial that sits in front of Baloga Funeral Home, attendees stood in silence as they listened to King’s College history professor Bob Wolensky speak about the events that took place on Jan. 22, 1959.
The mining company, the Knox Coal Company, disregarded regulations that stated mines must keep 35 feet of rock between the mine’s ceiling and riverbeds. The Susquehanna breached a six-foot patch of rock and flooded the tunnels underneath.
The incident is largely credited with being the dagger through the heart of the local coal mining industry, while also shedding light on a corrupt mining company. The Knox Coal Company dug its tunnels off-course with blatant disregard to regulations, Wolensky said.
While the disaster brought these issues to the forefront, many of those indicted on charges only served about two years in prison on tax evasion, and the bodies of the men whose lives were lost were never recovered.
“Unfortunately, the men at Knox are still there — and that’s their cemetery, ” he said. “Us doing this every year, we help the victims’ families cope with this and deal with this because they don’t know where their loved ones are.”
John Baloga has a personal tie to the ceremony and the disaster.
His grandfather, John, was one of the 12 miners who perished. After purchasing the former church where the memorial ceremony was held annually to run his funeral home, Baloga decided to continue the tradition. He remembers, as a child, his father attending the ceremonies.
Although he was too young to understand what had happened at the time, he went with his father anyway, later gaining that knowledge and understanding with age.
“We used to come to the mass in this building every year when they had the Knox Mine Memorial Mass,” he said of what is now his funeral home.
After the ceremony, more than 20 attendees made the trek down the street, walking a half mile through snow to the site where the Susquehanna opened into the mine. Surrounding a marker adorned with three veteran flags, they listened as Wolensky and Bill Best, president of the Huber Breaker Preservation Society and longtime assistant to the Knox Commemorative Ceremony, continued to speak about the heroic events that took place in that very spot 59 years earlier.
Numerous relatives of Knox miners were present in the crowd, many choosing to share their accounts of the day.
Pittston resident Tom Stegura recalled what he saw the day of the disaster and the efforts many made trying to close the hole, including dropping railroad cars and more down to no avail. His uncle, Tony Remus, was one of the miners who was able to escape.
“I was only 7 or 8 years old when this all happened. I remember being down here that day,” he said. “The whole town was down here. I saw the water going down the hole. I saw the ice going down the hole. I’ll never forget that.”
Tony Remus was able to escape with the help of Myron Thomas. Thomas, along with Joe Stella, was largely responsible for the rescue of dozens of miners that day. An assistant foreman, Thomas was on his lunch break when the river broke through, according his to granddaughter, Rebecca Thomas-Palmer, who attended the ceremony.
“I’m a fortunate one. I’m a lucky one. I knew him. I grew up with him,” she said. “Not everybody is. People call him a hero, but he was a humble man. He would never say he was a hero.”
Reach the Sunday Dispatch newsroom at 570-655-1418 or email firstname.lastname@example.org