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  • Anthracite mining historian and photographer Michael Havrischak of Coaldale stands at the sealed mine head and explains the dynamics of the 1915 Foster's Mine Tunnel Cave-In, an event that trapped 11 miners for days, all of whom survived. DONALD R…
    Anthracite mining historian and photographer Michael Havrischak of Coaldale stands at the sealed mine head and explains the dynamics of the 1915 Foster's Mine Tunnel Cave-In, an event that trapped 11 miners for days, all of whom survived. DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS
Published September 26. 2015 09:00AM

"They're alive. They're all alive!"

First there was the shock.

ELEVEN MINERS ENTOMBED IN LEHIGH COAL AND NAVIGATION COMPANY MINE IN COALDALE, the local newspaper headline screamed.

Then, a day later, there was the apprehension.

FEARS EXPRESSED THAT ENTOMBED MEN MAY NOT BE REACHED ALIVE.

And, finally, the jubilation, the joy that only a miracle can bring.

ENTOMBED MINERS RESCUED AFTER BwEING HELD PRISONERS BY FALL OF ROCK FOR SIX DAYS.

Monday, Sept. 27, 1915, was a beautiful autumn morning. The leaves on the white birch trees that jutted from the coal banks had turned a bright yellow. Soon they would fall, and the stark coldness of winter would blanket the borough of Coaldale.

The miners were back at work after spending Sunday worshipping with their families, and then spending a couple of hours after mass or services in the neighborhood bar waiting for a call to come home for a scrumptious Sunday dinner. The meal was the highlight of the week.

In Europe, there was the war to end all wars raging.

Youngsters were back in school. Many of them had worked the coal fields during the summer months. Coal was crucial to the war effort. Some of them wouldn't stay in school much beyond the third or fourth grade. Helping put food on the table was more important than education.

It was shortly after noon when the quiet of the early afternoon was shattered with the blaring of the colliery whistle at Foster's Tunnel. It was a sound that brought terror to everyone. Whistling at this time of the day could only mean one thing - a cave-in.

Eleven miners were trapped in the tunnel. Rescue efforts began immediately. What the result would be, nobody knew.

Two of those entombed, William "Kaska Bill" Watkins of Bloomingdale and George "Gint" Hollywood of Coaldale, somehow had the presence of mind to follow a path of running water and were rescued on the second day near the surface.

But signs of life concerning the other nine were slim. There was no noise, no tapping on the walls of coal, no pleas for help.

But then a third miner, William "Kelly" Watkins of Nesquehoning, walked unaided from the tunnel, and from newspaper accounts, he called his wife and told her he was all right, and he was coming home.

That left eight. And their fate was unknown.

The diary

My grandfather, Bill Kolosky, was 19 years old on that fateful day. Soon Uncle Sam would call him into the Army and he would eventually become Coaldale's last living World War I veteran.

But for now Bill was a full-time coal miner, earning $3.33 a shift. And on Sept. 27, 1915, he became one of the hundreds of rescuers who joined fellow miners, doctors, nurses, ambulance corps members, regular citizens and undertakers at the Foster's Tunnel entrance.

During the rescue, Bill found time to write some notes on the rescue effort. I found them in his attic after he died three years ago at the age of 101.

The rest of the rescue effort will be told in his words.

"Date of spill, 9/27/15 … 11 men closed in. Time of spill 7:30 a.m. on a Monday.

"Rescued following Sunday first man carried out on a stretcher about 1:30 p.m. Others followed in rapid succession. All taken to Coaldale Hospital.

"Watkins and Hollywood in chute 24 escaped on second day. It was they who drilled into an old unmarked Gangway releasing thousands of gallons of water.

"Watkins and Hollywood ran down 24 chute (and) for 2 days wandered through old breasts finally coming out in 13 chute.

"Nine other men came down various chutes and congregated in one ground in chute 28.

"These men had nothing to eat (as) their lunch pails were hanging on gangway legs. Gangway was closed to root from (chute) 14 to 26.

"Monkey was cleaned by bucket brigade from 13 to 26. A raft took the men from (chute) 28 to 26. Then helped through monkey to (chute) 13 then safety.

"Casualties - four mules drowned.

"Bonner went with Murphy for the ride - stayed 7 days.

"Lohenitz ate 'sunshine' (wax used to light helmet lamps).

"All men were paid a consideration shift (but of this I have no proof). A consideration shift is 8 hours work pay for 8 hours - $3.33.

"I was a full-time employee at that time, worked many hours in the rescue effort."

Signed, William Kolosky

A huge crowd of onlookers, rescuers and spectators, greeted the men as they emerged from the mine on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, 1915.

What they were witnessing was truly a miracle. None of the men were seriously hurt.

They spent a few days in Coaldale Hospital recuperating, and, dressed in new suits, they posed for a photograph on the back steps of the hospital, and then went home to their families, and eventually back to the mines.

The late Casey Gildea, ed itor and publisher of the old Coaldale Observer, wrote a fitting ending to the saga the day following the rescue when he penned the words: "They survived hardships which cannot be pictured by tongue or pen."

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