This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Nov. 6, 2013.
NELLIS, W.Va. — William Gunnoe noticed his safety lamp had stopped burning.
Gunnoe, a section foreman at the Nellis No. 3 Mine in the Boone County with 19 years’ experience, knew a darkened lamp meant one of two things. Either the device was broken, or the air inside the mine had filled with methane.
He figured the lamp was just broken, and asked his supply crew to return to the surface for another one. As a precaution, Gunnoe decided the men on his section would not blast any more coal, at least until he could rule out the methane.
The supply crew got in their electric man trip and headed aboveground.
At the same time, 5-year-old Harold Baldwin was sitting on a wall near his grandmother’s house, waiting on the evening train to pass. He went out to the wall every evening, to wave at the conductor and fireman.
“I was sitting out there, when that mine explosion happened,” Baldwin, now 75, said.
His grandmother ran out to the wall, scooped him up and carried him inside.
“She said ‘Henry, this is bad,’” Baldwin remembers. “Because the whistle just kept blowing and blowing and blowing. She knew it was real bad.”
Gunnoe had been wrong about the methane.
About 6:55 p.m. on Nov. 6, 1943, a spark from an electric mine car ignited the air inside American Rolling Mill Company’s coal mine in Nellis, killing Gunnoe, his brother, Lester, and seven other men.
William Barker, 59, and Lawrence Vincent, 25, survived the initial blast but later died at McMillan Hospital in Charleston.
Although Baldwin was only a child, he remembers a black cloud descending on Nellis after the blast.
“It was like a morgue. There was nobody out,” he said. “They were in a daze. It just ripped the guts right out of the community.”
Nellis, in some ways, is still dealing with the tragedy.
Like many coal communities, the tiny town still bears the markings of its mid-century heyday. The coal camp houses are still there, along with the company store (which is now a cash and carry) and the community church that since 2004 has served as museum.
The church-turned-museum contains artifacts of coal camp life — typewriters, telephones, cash registers and company store scrip — but also reminders of the tragedy. There are news clippings from the time, along with coal company reports on the blast, typewritten on onionskin paper.
“People bring things to us all the time,” said Judy McComas, secretary and treasurer of the Boone County Historic Landmark Commission. “We don’t say no.”
In one glass case are the personal effects of Lester Gunnoe, donated by his son, Arnett: a wooden pipe, leather belt, shaving razor, his pocket-sized mining certificate and Social Security Card, and two nickels Gunnoe had in his pocket at the time of the blast.
The heat of the explosion fused the coins together, back-to-front.
Down the hill from the church, the Boone County Commission erected a monument in 1997 honoring the 11 victims of the explosion, which remains Boone County’s single worst coal mining disaster.
Members of the community, along with students from the nearby Nellis Elementary School, will gather at the memorial at 1 p.m. today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.
The service will include songs from students at Nellis Elementary, comments from Boone County Commissioner Mickey Brown and Board of Education member Joe Tagliente, a letter from Rep. Nick Rahall and other tributes.
McComas said several men who worked at the Nellis No. 3 mine after the explosion are expected to attend, along with Bill Workman, son of one of the victims.
Harold Baldwin won’t be in attendance. He’s in Oakland, Neb. now, where he’s lived and worked since leaving the Air Force in the 1960s.
He still subscribes to the Coal Valley News, however, and still visits Nellis whenever he’s in West Virginia…even though he admits he’d never live there again.
“You can never tell where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,” he said, choking back tears.