PITTSTON – According to witnesses, during the early morning of Sunday, June 28, 1896, residents in the Junction section of Pittston were rocked with what they believed to be explosions.
The earth shook; doors and windows rattled, waking the people of Pittston and West Pittston, and some residents closer to the disaster were thrown from their beds.
Residents reflected on the Twin Shaft Disaster that killed 58 men and boys last century at a wreath-laying ceremony near the Coal Miner statue June 25.
Greater Pittston Historical Society members along with Pittston officials noted the 120th anniversary of the disaster at the Coal Miner Statue on the Pittston side of the Fort-Jenkins Bridge.
Ron Faraday, Greater Pittston Historical Society president, and John Golden, a descendant of killed miner James Golden, laid the wreath.
Dr. Richard Fitzsimmons, a descendent of three miners killed in the disaster, was present for the ceremony.
“My great-grandfather, John Kehoe, was 42 years old when he was entombed,” Fitzsimmons said. “He was a father of seven — a widower himself at the age of 31 when his wife died.”
Fitzsimmons served as co-chair of the event along with Mary Policare of the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
“My family noted (the disaster) with a mass up until the 1970s and then it trailed off,” Fitzsimmons said. He, along with Policare and the Greater Pittston Historical Society, began planning the 120th anniversary of the disaster. “The Historical Society took the lead; reached out to Our Lady of Eucharist Parish and got a lot of cooperation from them in help with the ceremony.”
Our Lady of the Eucharist Parish — known as St. Mary, Help of Christian Church, during the Twin Shaft Disaster — had 32 parishioners of the 58 that perished in the massive cave-in.
At a Pittston City Council meeting June 22, Mayor Jason Klush and council members presented a proclamation noting the Twin Shaft Disaster to the Greater Pittston Historical Society.
In a separate ceremony following Mass at Our Lady of Eucharist Church, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, along with representatives of Gov. Tom Wolf, state Sen. John Yudichak, and state Rep. Michael Carroll, issued certificates to descendants of the disaster present for the program.
Disaster changed laws
Witnesses at the time of the disaster said many were convinced it was an earthquake, but it soon became apparent that it was not a natural disaster. The town sirens and colliery whistles began to sound. Families quickly gathered at the Newton Coal Company’s Twin Shaft Colliery.
Ninety miners were working in the Red Ash Vein, where it is estimated 200 acres of mine tunnels collapsed, killing 58 workers 434 feet below the surface. The disaster left 31 widows and 101 children orphaned.
Rescue efforts continued for days after the disaster only to fail leaving all 58 bodies, made up of Lithuanian and Irish immigrants, entombed forever. An historical marker is placed in the area of the site on North Main Street noting the disaster.
Then Pennsylvania Gov. Daniel H. Hastings called for an immediate investigation to determine if negligence had occurred and if disasters could be prevented in the future.
As a result of the disaster and poor work conditions, unionization of coal miners occurred 1898 under the leadership of John Mitchell and the United Mine Works of America was born.
Under Mitchell’s leadership the union grew from 34,000 to 300,000 members. President Theodore Roosevelt intervened during negotiations between Mitchell and several mining companies resulting in creation an eight-hour workday and establishing a minimum wage.