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Chapter 25

These were the last words Hal spoke. They were obvious enough words, yet when he looked back upon the coincidence, it seemed to him a singular one. For while he was sitting there chatting, it happened that the poor under-dogs inside the mountain were in the midst of one of those experiences which make the romance and terror of coal-mining. One of the boys who were employed underground, in violation of the child labour law, was in the act of bungling his task. He was a "spragger," whose duty it was to thrust a stick into the wheel of a loaded car to hold it; and he was a little chap, and the car was in motion when he made the attempt. It knocked him against the wall--and so there was a load of coal rolling down grade, pursued too late by half a dozen men. Gathering momentum, it whirled round a curve and flew from the track, crashing into timbers and knocking them loose. With the timbers came a shower of coal-dust, accumulated for decades in these old workings; and at the same time came an electric light wire, which, as it touched the car, produced a spark.

And so it was that Hal, chatting with the marshal, suddenly felt, rather than heard, a deafening roar; he felt the air about him turn into a living thing which struck him a mighty blow, hurling him flat upon the floor. The windows of the room crashed inward upon him in a shower of glass, and the plaster of the ceiling came down on his head in another shower.

When he raised himself, half stunned, he saw the marshal, also on the floor; these two conversationalists stared at each other with horrified eyes. Even as they crouched, there came a crash above their heads, and half the ceiling of the room came toward them, with a great piece of timber sticking through. All about them were other crashes, as if the end of the world had come.

They struggled to their feet, and rushing to the door, flung it open, just as a jagged piece of timber shattered the side-walk in front of them. They sprang back again, "Into the cellar!" cried the marshal, leading the way to the back-stairs.

But before they had started down these stairs, they realised that the crashing had ceased. "What is it?" gasped Hal, as they stood.

"Mine-explosion," said the other; and after a few seconds they ran to the door again.

The first thing they saw was a vast pillar of dust and smoke, rising into the sky above them. It spread before their dazed eyes, until it made night of everything about them. There was still a rain of lighter debris pattering down over the village; as they stared, and got their wits about them, remembering how things had looked before this, they realised that the shaft-house of Number One had disappeared.

"Blown up, by God!" cried the marshal; and the two ran out into the street, and looking up, saw that a portion of the wrecked building had fallen through the roof of the jail above their heads.

The rain of debris had now ceased, but there were clouds of dust which covered the two men black; the clouds grew worse, until they could hardly see their way at all. And with the darkness there fell silence, which, after the sound of the explosion and the crashing of debris, seemed the silence of death.

For a few moments Hal stood dazed. He saw a stream of men and boys pouring from the breaker; while from every street there appeared a stream of women; women old, women young--leaving their cooking on the stove, their babies in the crib, with their older children screaming at their skirts, they gathered in swarms about the pit-mouth, which was like the steaming crater of a volcano.

Cartwright, the superintendent, appeared, running toward the fan-house. Cotton joined him, and Hal followed. The fan-house was a wreck, the giant fan lying on the ground a hundred feet away, its blades smashed. Hal was too inexperienced in mine-matters to get the full significance of this; but he saw the marshal and the superintendent stare blankly at each other, and heard the former's exclamation, "That does for us!" Cartwright said not a word; but his thin lips were pressed together, and there was fear in his eyes.

Back to the smoking pit-mouth the two men hurried, with Hal following. Here were a hundred, two hundred women crowded, clamouring questions all at once. They swarmed about the marshal, the superintendent, the other bosses--even about Hal, crying hysterically in Polish and Bohemian and Greek. When Hal shook his head, indicating that he did not understand them, they moaned in anguish, or shrieked aloud. Some continued to stare into the smoking pit-mouth; others covered the sight from their eyes, or sank down upon their knees, sobbing, praying with uplifted hands.

Little by little Hal began to realise the full horror of a mine-disaster. It was not noise and smoke and darkness, nor frantic, wailing women; it was not anything above ground, but what was below in the smoking black pit! It was men! Men whom Hal knew, whom he had worked with and joked with, whose smiles he had shared; whose daily life he had come to know! Scores, possibly hundreds of them, they were down here under his feet--some dead, others injured, maimed. What would they do? What would those on the surface do for them? Hal tried to get to Cotton, to ask him questions; but the camp-marshal was surrounded, besieged. He was pushing the women back, exclaiming, "Go away! Go home!"

What? Go home? they cried. When their men were in the mine? They crowded about him closer, imploring, shrieking.

"Get out!" he kept exclaiming. "There's nothing you can do! There's nothing anybody can do yet! Go home! Go home!" He had to beat them back by force, to keep them from pushing one another into the pit-mouth.

Everywhere Hal looked were women in attitudes of grief: standing rigid, staring ahead of them as if in a trance; sitting down, rocking to and fro; on their knees with faces uplifted in prayer; clutching their terrified children about their skirts. He saw an Austrian woman, a pitiful, pale young thing with a ragged grey shawl about her head, stretching out her hands and crying: "Mein Mann! Mein Mann!" Presently she covered her face, and her voice died into a wail of despair: "O, mein Mann! O, mein Mann!" She turned away, staggering about like some creature that has received a death wound. Hal's eyes followed her; her cry, repeated over and over incessantly, became the leit-motif of this symphony of horror.

He had read about mine-disasters in his morning newspaper; but here a mine-disaster became a thing of human flesh and blood. The unendurable part of it was the utter impotence of himself and of all the world. This impotence became clearer to him each moment--from the exclamations of Cotton and of the men he questioned. It was monstrous, incredible--but it was so! They must send for a new fan, they must wait for it to be brought in, they must set it up and get it into operation; they must wait for hours after that while smoke and gas were cleared out of the main passages of the mine; and until this had been done, there was nothing they could do--absolutely nothing! The men inside the mine would stay. Those who had not been killed outright would make their way into the remoter chambers, and barricade themselves against the deadly "after damp." They would wait, without food or water, with air of doubtful quality--they would wait and wait, until the rescue-crew could get to them!

Upton Sinclair