Tomorrow marks the 110th anniversary of the worst mine disaster in Tennessee history. At about 7:30 am on May 19, 1902, an explosion ripped through the Fraterville Mine of the Coal Creek Mining Company. Apparently fueled by methane gas that had seeped into the mine from an adjacent unventilated shaft, the blast and its aftermath took the lives of 216 miners, some of them children. Among the youngest was 12-year-old Henry Whitton.
Not all who died were killed, or even injured, by the initial explosion. Those deeper in the mine survived, possibly up to seven hours or more before succumbing to lack of oxygen or toxic gases. Many wrote letters to loved ones seeking to comfort them in their Christian faith. J. L. Powell wrote to his wife, Ellen, on behalf of himself and the small son who was in the mine with him. He implored her to "put your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children." On behalf of "Little Elbert" who sat beside him he added a request "for you all to meet us in heaven, all the children meet us both in heaven."
Rescue efforts were quickly organized, but in those days before modern mine-rescue technology, the rescuers were driven back by toxic fumes. The operator of the mine ventilation system and the mine superintendent were both charged with negligence and then acquitted following hearings.