This People's History presents the full official investigative report prepared by the state chief coal mine inspector of an incident at the Elk Mine in King County in which miner John A. Wolti was rescued after being trapped by a cave-in for 54 hours. This report on the dramatic 1950 rescue was contributed by Bill Kombol, manager of Palmer Coking Coal Co.
State of Washington Annual Report of Coal Mines
for the Year Ending December 31, 1950
Report on Accident and Recovery of Miner, John Wolti, who was buried under cave-in of the gangway in the Elk Mine, operated by the Big Four Coal Company, King County Washington
On Wednesday, December 13 1950, at Roslyn, Washington, about 3:30 in the afternoon, I was informed by telephone that a miner had been killed by a fall of rock at the Elk mine. I gave instructions to our office to order work started to recover the body, also to notify the district office of the U.M.W. of A. of the accident, and set the date of inquiry for 10 A.M. Friday, morning of the 15th. Mr. L.H. McGuire, of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, was with us at the time, so he was personally notified and requested to be at the inquest. We left Roslyn that afternoon, arriving at the Big Four mine at about 10 P.M.
What we found was altogether different to what had been described to us over the phone from our office. Instead of the relatively small rock fall we had pictured, the gangway was filled with an enormous cave-in of roof material, timber and gob material that had rolled down the pitch. It was the opinion of everyone on the job that there wasn’t a chance of the man being alive, but we had to assume he was living and act accordingly.
The gangway at the scene of the accident was about twenty feet wide, double track and about nine feet high under the collar, the coal bed about twenty feet thick, on a dip of 45° to 47°. A modified system of retreat booming is employed for the extraction of the pillars and all that line of pillars had been drawn down to the gangway, including the gangway stump, the coal had been loaded out and preparation had been completed to move out to the next pillar, with the exception of taking out the rope block which was used in connection with the slusher used to load out the coal. The block was hanging on a collar on the inby side of the worked out area. Mr. Wolti had taken the block down and was on his way out when, according to evidence, without any previous warning, the place caved, burying Mr. Wolti.
When we arrived at the mine the rescue crews had been well organized by the foreman, Fred Davis, and work was in progress. Mr. Davis had taken charge of the graveyard shift, Fred Benedetti of the afternoon shift, and Bill Moses the day shift.
At this time I, assisted by Mr. Holmes, assumed charge and direction of the rescue crews. Fred Benedetti, in charge of the afternoon shift, had made an excellent start in the right place and in the correct way. He had erected two false sets of timber bridged for forepoling and the forepoles (20 lb. rails), advanced ahead of the inby set, and advance was made from there. It was a tedious, extremely dangerous job tunneling through the caved material, but the rescue crews were expert, experienced miners, and we made it. After advancing about 30 feet into the pile, the afternoon shift, on Thursday, thought they could hear sounds coming from the man under the cave, but it was not definitely sure that he was alive until the early morning of Friday the 15th. It was fortunate that he was able to talk to us, because that enabled us to head the tunnel directly toward him.
We found him 57 feet in, under the cave, trapped under timber and rock in such a way that he could only move one hand, and his head about two inches from side to side. However, the crossed and tangled broken timbers above him had prevented his being crushed to death. We got him out at 7:15 P.M., Friday the 15th, 54 hours after the cave occurred. Evidently he was not seriously injured, and after a shot of black coffee, sugar and whiskey was in excellent spirits.
Names of the men who worked on the rescue crews are as follows: Jack Darby, Alex Noble, Charles Cooney, Joe Bertelli, John Ceatilo, Vic Booth, Bill Zaputil, William Moses, fireboss in charge of the day shift. Some of the surface employees also were down giving us help: Ted Stasiak, Tony Stasiak, Bob Peterson, a young man named Martindale and Andy Turelli, Art Barton and George Moses.
For outstanding work, Fred Davis, foremen, who worked around the clock, Fred Benedetti, afternoon fireboss, Grover Smail and Paul Readshaw, not forgetting Mrs. Rose Martindale, who provided hot coffee and attended the phone during the whole period, and Dr. Gordon Adams, of Enumclaw, who stayed in the mine from about 9 A.M. until the man was rescued, and several times crawled into the hole to try to free one of the man’s hands, that was trapped between two timbers.
And thanking: Mr. David J. Williams, president of the company, for his order that anything and everything be made available to us to effect a speedy recovery.
Chief Coal Mine Inspector.
Deputy Coal Mine Inspector
305 Harrison St.
Seattle 9, Wash.