The Miracle at Hominy Falls
By Nancy Richmond
It has been more than 50 years since the tragic coal mining disaster that occurred at Saxsewell Mine #8, near Hominy Falls, West Virginia. The site is located in the very heart of the Appalachian coal fields. The mine, owned by The Gauley Coal and Coke Company, opened and began production on Nov. 7, 1966. The company employed a total of 68 UMWA (union) miners, who were divided into three shifts. It was a drift type mine; meaning the coal seam outcropped on the surface and mining could begin directly into the coal bed; as opposed to shaft mining. The Sewell coal seam that was being mined at the Hominy Falls mine averaged only 32 inches high – it was low coal.
On May 6, 1968, a continuous miner machine working deep within the earth cut into an area where there was an unmapped abandoned coal mine. The old works were filled with millions of gallons of acidic water, which poured into the tunnels of the newer mine. Most of the men managed to escape, but 25 were trapped inside by the flood. More than 15 million gallons of water lay between those men and the surface.
As the days passed, the entire country became enthralled with the desperate situation of the men who were still entombed in the depths of the earth by millions of gallons of acidic water. Over the next ten days news crews, rescue teams, family members and onlookers from thousands of miles gathered at the entrance of the mine, waiting for information on the trapped men.
Huge pumps were set up outside the mine and began pumping out the ocean of water that lay between the surface and the miners. Massive efforts from volunteers around the state resulted in finding 15 survivors after six days. The other ten men, who had been working deeper in the mine, were presumed dead. The rescuers, however, refused to give up, even though many locals residents and family members told reporters that only a miracle could save the missing miners. Four days later, however, volunteers found a fresh footprint in the mud of the receding water. It eventually led them to the missing men. Tragically, four (William Burdette, Claude Dodd Jr, Eli Walkup, and Renick McClung) were deceased. The remaining six men had managed to survive and were brought to the surface among the cheers of the onlookers.
The cause of the Hominy Falls mining disaster was determined by the Gauley Coal and Coke Company in a report submitted to the Beckley Office, New River and Winding Gulf Division, West Virginia Department of Mines on May 28, 1968. Their results concluded that:
“The workmen were drowned when the place they were working cut into or broke through to a water filled area of an adjacent abandoned mine…Contributing factors were: Failure of the mine management to provide an accurate survey of the areas they were to mine. Failure to show adjacent mine workings on the working map at the mine”.
Immediately after the deaths of the four miners at Hominy Falls, new laws were passed which established the ‘Mine Map Archives.’ Both the Federal Government and the West Virginia Legislature passed laws regulating the preservation of mining maps. In West Virginia, this law (22A-2-1) requires all mine operators to submit to the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training a final, certified map of their operation. The law requires the maintenance of maps in a fireproof vault and an indexing and microfilming system.
While the creation of the new map laws cannot make up for the loss of the four men who died in the Hominy Falls mine disaster, it at least assures no other miners will die because of inaccurate mapping practices. In 2019, a West Virginia Highway Historical Marker “Miracle At Hominy Falls” was erected near the site of the mine disaster to commemorate the tragedy.