Coal mining in Osage County
Courtesy of Kansas Historical Quarterly

Who Is to Blame?

Accidents in the coal mining industry were frequent occurrences. Some accidents resulted in horrendous injuries and permanent disabilities. Worse yet, many accidents resulted in death! Accidents occurred for many reasons including the dangerous working conditions, minimal safety regulations, employee and employer oversight, and gravity, among others. Men were forced to work in compromising conditions. Many men worked all day knelling or in a prone position. Timbermen would use logs to create props and crossbars, fitting them together to brace roofs as the miners advanced. Unfortunately for some, the roof timbering would not always be sufficient protection. Many accidents were caused by the fall of rocks where the miners worked.

For example, in 1927 over fifty fatal accidents occured in Colorado coal mines. Of the fifty-four fatal accidents that occurred in the Colorado coal mines during 1927, twelve were employed by Colorado Fuel & Iron. The twelve accidents resulting in death of CF&I employees represents twenty-two percent of the annual deaths. Nine of the twelve fatal accidents was due to the fall of rock. Seventy-five percent of the deaths at CF&I mines were the result of falling rock. Mining is dangerous work, there’s no mistaking that, but who did the company blame for all these fatal accidents?

The first death of a CF&I employee in 1927 was on January 11th. Mike Di Paolo, a thirty year old father and husband had fifteen years of experience, but when he was mining, rock was relieved of its support and fell on him, killing him instantly. Later that month, Andy Ferraro was also killed because a pot rock fell on him. Ferraro had twenty-six years of experience mining. Both accidents were ruled unforeseen and classified as unavoidable.

On February 19th, Abunido Fernandez, a miner with three years’ experience, was also killed by the fall of rock. His accident was also ruled unforeseen and unavoidable. On March 26th, Alex Thorp was digging coal off the face when an invisible slip was cut, releasing a large pot rock, which fell on him, killing him instantly. According to inspection reports, the place was well timbered. Thorp’s accident was classified as unforeseen and unavoidable.

On August 4th, Samuel Gutierrez was also killed by a fall of rock. Gutierrez, a miner with fifteen years’ experience was working near an empty car when the rock fell on him from a slip on the right rib. The place was well timbered with props separated two feet, five inches from one another. This accident was unforeseen and classified as unavoidable. On September 19th, Francisco Abalos, a miner with four months’ experience, was also killed by the fall of rock. The deceased and his brother were working the night shift drawing pillars. They were loading the last car of the shift when the pillar caved, burying the deceased and trapping the brother and a mule on the right side of the place, holding them there for two hours before being released. The place was well timbered according to the brother’s statement and they heard no warning of the place working before the cave. This accident was classified as unavoidable.

On October 4th, Anthony Kos, a miner with five years’ experience, was injured by the fall of rock dying from injuries sustained three days later. Kos was pulling pillars and was within three feet of breaking through, when he struck a small slip at the face extending across the coal to the roof above, and loosened a rock which fell on him. The place was well timbered and the accident was unforeseen and classified as unavoidable. On November 8th, Louis Yedynak was also killed by the fall of rock. Yedynak had seven years of mining experience. Yedynak was working nights with his partner. They were pulling pillar stumps. They had loaded three cars and had started on the fourth, when a rock on the left side of the stump gave way from the rib, knocking two props from under the cross bar next to the face. The rock fell on Yedynak, killing him instantly. This accident was ruled unforeseen and was classified as unavoidable.

On March 7th, Walter M. Owens was killed when a rock fell on him while mining. This particular accident was not classified as unforeseen and unavoidable. The company and state inspector classified this death as one due to negligence of the mine officials and the deceased. This ruling was different because there was knowledge that this miner was working in a room where there was eighteen inches of drawslate over the coal. The coal was mined from under this drawslate about two and one-half feet deep. The miner had not placed sprags or props to support it after the coal was mined from it. Had this been done, the rock that fell on Owens would have been held in place and the accident would have been avoided.

Eight of the nine fatal accidents caused by the fall of rock during 1927 were classified as unforeseen and unavoidable. Only one accident was blamed to the negligence of the worker and the mine officials. Walter Owens was the employee that was blamed for his death. Owens was working at the Robinson Number Two mine. Owens was also an African-American and classified as “colored” by mining documents. Of the other eight fatalities due from falling rock, two were Italian, two were Mexican, three were American, and one was Austrian. In the State and company documents there is no blatant evidence of discrimination, but one can conclude that CF&I officials took race into account when investigating accidents that resulted in fatalities in 1927. CF&I officials also never accepted blame for a killed employee. The reason of unforeseen and unavoidable essentially blames the employee. CF&I eagerly repelled the blame of fatal accidents in 1927 coal mines.