Calumet, LA Salt Mine Fire, Mar 1968

All 21 Miners Are Found Dead

Calumet, La. (AP)-The 21 men trapped two days ago when a fierce fire erupted in a salt mine’s elevator shaft were found dead yesterday.

Rescue crews first found 16 of them, huddled like children in sleep, in a tunnel 3,000 feet from the shaft. The other five were located a few hours later.

“All 21 are now accounted for.” announced a weary spokesman for Cargill Inc., the Minneapolis firm that owns the isolated coal mine.

There were shrieks of anguish and weeping when the announcement was made to the some 70 relatives and wives who had kept the long anxious vigil at the Calumet headquarters-14 miles from the mine.

Miners in muddy coveralls sobbed unashamedly.

Second Shaft

The disaster came eight months after the Federal Bureau of Mines recommended that the mine sink a second shaft as an escape route and for ventilation, and install various fire controls.

At Indianapolis, H. A. Schrecengost, manager of the bureau’s District D, said the recommendations were made by A. M. Evans, mining engineer from the Dallas sub district, after an “observation walk through” last August.

“These recommendations did not have the force of law,” Schrecengost added.

H. Robert Dierefs, executive vice president of Cargill, Inc., said he was not aware of any such recommendations.

Greatest Tragedy

“This is the greatest tragedy in the history of our business,” he said, when the final word came that the men were dead.

Raymond R. Ashby, a Kentucky coal mine safety expert, said the 16 found by his crew apparently “died of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“They died a painless death,” added Ashby, a member of one of the special mine rescue crews flown in from Madisonville, Ky. “It was like lying down and going to sleep.”

Officials declined to say where the other five bodies were located. A source who declined to be quoted say they were in the sump-a deep, water-filled hole at the base of the shaft.

Exhausted

A Cargill spokesman said efforts to recover the bodies would be postponed until Saturday. The rescue workers were exhausted, he added.

The 21 men were trapped at the 1,200-foot level when fire-its source unknown-broke out in the shaft at midnight Tuesday, minutes before they were to leave.

The last desperate work from below, telephones to hoist operator Clomere Leboeuf, was: “Bring it up, bring the cage up!”

It was too late. The shaft, braced with timbers, was ablaze. Leboeuf said he could only hose water down the shaft and watch the thick steel elevator cables gradually glow redhot-then part.

Though hope had dwindled as the hours wore on, many of the relatives found the final announcement almost too much to bear.

At the mine, foreman Arthur Ollvier, his muddy face ashen with fatigue, swayed and would have fallen had friends not leaped to support him; he had a son and two relatives among the dead.

Ollvier was once trapped in the mine for 30 hours by a power failure.

Cargill miners, who had worked feverishly during the rescue operation, were placed in helicopters and flown to Calumet to join their families.

Salt Dome

The isolated Cargill mine, relatively small but sunk in one of the world’s biggest salt domes, is right on the coast, surrounded by water and swamp. It is accessible only by boat or plane.

Activity at the mine head slowed. The big compressors brought in to pump fresh air down into the mine through pipe borrowed from a nearby offshore oil rig, roared on.

But the long anxiety, the desperate and futile effort, was over.

Abilene Reporter News, Abilene, TX 9 Mar 1968

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