The number of people attending the annual memorial service in Pocahontas Cemetery honoring the 114 coal miners who died in the March 13, 1884 East Mine explosion, was down this year, but the keynote speaker’s message was powerful, and people attending the service lent a hand during the lighting of the luminaries.

“I remember the first time Jeanette and I attended this ceremony,” State Senator Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell said. “We went to the high school for the bean supper they had afterwards, and as we were driving back through here, Jeanette told me to stop the car. We looked at the luminaries on the hillside when it was completely dark outside. It leaves an impact.”

Thomas Childress of Historic Pocahontas explained the evolution of the modern ceremony honoring the coal miners who died in the 1884 explosion. He said that the late Edna Drosick recommended that lighting luminaries would be an appropriate way to honor the unmarked graves.

Engineers flooded the East Mine and sealed it to extinguish the fire. “According to the investigation, the explosion was caused by fire damp (methane gas) fueled by dry coal dust,” Mike Hymes, keynote speaker said. “The Pocahontas catastrophe we remember here tonight is the first case in the history of American coal mining in which the coal dust theory has been advanced to account for an explosion. Unfortunately, it was not the last explosion in the coal industry fueled by gas and coal dust.”

Hymes is the southern district supervisor of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, and is also director of Human Resources for James River Coal Inc. He is a third generation coal miner who got his first job working at the Jenkinjones No. 8 Mine in 1967. He is no stranger to mine disasters. His father was a member of the mine rescue team who worked to save coal miners caught in the Feb. 4, 1957 explosion at the Bishop Mine that claimed the lives of 37 coal miners.

“In my job, I have seen many injuries and unfortunately, deaths,” Hymes said. “No matter how long I work, I am amazed at the resiliency of coal miners and their families. We love our work. We love each other. We love our families and most of all, we love this country.” Hymes explained that in his earlier position as director of human resources for the company that operated the Sago Mine, he spent “41 hours in the Sago Baptist Church riding the emotional roller coaster with the families,” and for two years after the explosion, he served as the primary contact for the families.

An articulate group of students — most from Childress’ class at Southwest Virginia Community College — read the history of the mine explosion, the poem honoring Braxton Bragg, one of the coal miners who died in the explosion and read the names of the coal miners who died in the mines that day. Pocahontas Mayor Adam Cannoy and Mike Kennedy of the United Mine Workers of America placed a wreath on the monument honoring the 114 coal miners. Father Russ Hatfield of Christ Episcopal Church in Pocahon-tas gave the invocation and the Reverend Carlos Hess, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Pocahontas gave the benediction.

Leanna Mullins, also a student at SVCC, sang “Amazing Grace” accompanied by Karl Miller as the half-dozen students started lighting the luminaries. Within moments, several people attending the service — including Senator Puckett — started helping the students. Together, the group finished lighting the luminaries just as Mullins finished the fourth verse of the song.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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