At 7.20am on May 19, 1902, a tremendous explosion ripped through the Fraterville coal mine in Coal Creek, Tennessee. Although many of the 214 men and boys killed in the disaster were torn limb from limb by the blast, some died without a mark on their bodies. These were the victims of what miners call "afterdamp", a deadly mixture of gases that fills a mine after an explosion.
Only when the vapours had dispersed could rescue workers penetrate the lower reaches of the subterranean complex, and it was there that they came upon a haunting tableau.
They called it "The Last Prayer Meeting". Thirteen men and a boy sat slumped in a room and one of them, Jacob Vowell, held in his lifeless hands a pencil and several pieces of paper on which were written the miners'
The last of these, written just 90 minutes before rescuers broke through, said: "Ellen, I want you to live right and go to heaven where we may meet.
Raise the children the best you can. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie ... Goodbye darling."
Another note said simply: "Oh God, for one more breath", and it was these words that appeared across front pages the next morning. There was no doubt as to the scale of the disaster, which left 150 widows and up to 1,000 fatherless children. Less clear, however, was cause of the blast, as methane gas, the usual culprit in pit explosions, had never been a problem at Fraterville.
It seems likely, however, that this relative freedom from "firedamp" had resulted in a lax approach by management to ventilation and the build-up of inflammable coal dust.
When, on May 17, miners unexpectedly broke into the long-abandoned shaft of a disused pit, gas was allowed to seep into the Fraterville workings. The next day being a Sunday, the furnace used to create a ventilation draft in the absence of a proper fan was allowed to go out and this proved to be a fatal error. By Monday morning Fraterville was a bomb waiting to go off.