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Service to mark 70th anniversary of Orient mine explosion

Submitted by Marcia Raubach Old King Coal Festival Publicity Director
updated: 12/18/2021 1:07 PM

The Southern Illinois Old King Coal Festival Committee and Coal Miners Memorial Park will mark the 70th anniversary of the Orient No. 2 mine explosion beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21 at First Christian Church, 1001 S. Cherry in West Frankfort.

The service will feature several special speakers sharing their thoughts on the Dec. 21, 1951, disaster in which 119 miners lost their live. It was one of the deadliest mine explosions in the U. S. history.

Speakers will include West Frankfort Mayor Tom Jordan, State Sen. Dale Fowler, State Rep. Dave Severin and Dr. Allan Patton.

Franklin County Circuit Clerk Jim Muir will conduct a candle-lighting ceremony. As each miner's name is read and his picture shown on a large screen, a black candle will be lit in their honor. A moment of silence will be observed at the exact time of the explosion.

The Orient No. 2 mine was the largest shaft mine in the country at that time. That afternoon, 257 men reported to work for the second shift. The miners were just a few hours away from the beginning of their Christmas vacation.

After the explosion, a whistle blew at the portal alerting that an accident had occurred. Rescue workers began to converge on the scene, as well as local and national reporters. Many of the families were attending a high school basketball game in West Frankfort. When an announcement was made for medical personal to report to the mine location, those in attendance flocked to the mine scene, fearing the worst.

The gymnasium of the local Central Junior High School became the temporary morgue as the bodies of the fallen miners were brought in to be identified by family members. Medical evidence indicated that most of the men died almost instantly, while others were killed by carbon monoxide after the blast consumed the healthy oxygen in the tunnels.

One man, Cecil Sanders, survived the 60-hour ordeal. He was the only survivor in the explosion area of the mine. There were 18 funerals held on Christmas Eve, 24 on Christmas Day and the remaining on Dec. 26.