- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

BENTON, Ill.

Just outside town, Bob Rea stands on a muddy, scrubby swath of land and calls it hallowed — the place where 119 coal miners, in the flash of a blast hundreds of feet below him, lost their lives in a 1951 disaster.

The insurance man, bent on turning the 10-acre patch into a tourist-drawing memorial and museum, knows he has his work cut out for him. The land already is a graveyard — one of rusty hulks of junk cars, discarded furniture and shattered glass.

“It looks pretty rough,” he lamented recently while showing off several cinderblock buildings dating to when this place was the Orient No. 2 mine’s Portal No. 4, where miners used an elevator, of sorts, to make their way into and out of the mine.

It’s the place where 119 bodies, some in pieces, were brought to the surface after the methane explosion Dec. 21, 1951, the time many around here still regard as the “Black Christmas.”

Dismissing the graffiti and the debris, Mr. Rea sees a site worth preserving.

“If it’s not saved, it’s certain to be vandalized, it’s going to be torn down and lost forever,” he says. Mr. Rea, president of the Franklin County Historic Preservation Society, learned of Portal No. 4’s existence after the deaths in January of a dozen miners in a West Virginia accident spawned local press reports revisiting the Orient disaster.

Mr. Rea’s dream is to see what remains of Portal No. 4 turned into a period piece, restored to “re-create that day — as much as it was the day they reported to work.”

Mr. Rea has had preliminary contact with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, hoping eventually to get the site in southern Illinois listed — and protected — on the National Register of Historic Places. But for now, he is just trying to get the word out that the site is here, hoping benevolent “outside forces” step in with the money and muscle to clear the land for a museum.

His well-wishers include Jack McReynolds, among the many who flocked to the site moments after the disaster so cruelly close to Christmas.

Mr. McReynolds, 69, can’t forget that day 54 years ago. The Chicago, Wilmington and Franklin Coal Co. miners had just begun the last pre-holiday shift when the explosion tore through, filling the dark maze with choking dust and carbon monoxide.

More than half of the 200 men in the mine were killed. The survivors — those working far from the blast — managed to walk to safety.

Mr. McReynolds and many others were at a high school basketball game that night when a voice on the loudspeaker broke in, summoning any doctors and experienced miners to the Orient site.

“We knew something was really bad,” recalls Mr. McReynolds, now retired after 32 years working other mines.

Many huddled around their radios, hoping to hear any details. Mr. McReynolds and others went to Mr. Portal No. 4, where he noticed something odd: Pigeons roosting on the structure that raised and lowered the elevator were dropping dead, plummeting into the mine as smoke — and apparently toxic vapors that came with it — billowed from the earth and overtook them.

The next day, Mr. McReynolds said, the first of the bodies was brought out at Portal No. 4.

“On Christmas Eve, we had 22 funerals. On Christmas Day, there were 19,” Mr. McReynolds said. “Everybody I know took down their tree and forgot Christmas.”

Amid all the misery, Mr. Rea says, locals got a Christmas miracle: One miner, Cecil Sanders, survived 56 hours in the mine before being brought out alive.

The disaster hastened federal and state safety regulations that saved lives in the decades that followed. That summer, President Truman signed the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act, giving inspectors the power to close unsafe mines. The Illinois Mining Act of 1953 mandated better mine ventilation and testing for methane.

Last year, 22 mine deaths were reported across the nation, a record low. Since the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia in January, the National Mining Association and the United Mine Workers of America have called for a major overhaul of state and federal mine safety laws.

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