This is the initial article in a series about the soon-to-be-released book, FRACTURED. The title was selected for its relevance to several themes that play out over the arc of the story. These themes involve things that can be fractured. Things like land, bones, and lives. This piece will focus on the first of these. In the initial chapter it's revealed that one of the main characters, John Bristow, owns farmland near Sanford, North Carolina that's saturated with natural gas. He and his wife, Emily, are being coerced into leasing their property’s mineral rights to an energy company that wants to begin hydrofracking. In spite of the financial windfall they remain opposed because of the potential adverse environmental effects fracking could have on land that has been in the Bristow family for generations. Emily, in particular, is adamant about not selling. She understands the fundamental principle of fracking involves detonating explosive charges deep in the earth to release trapped natural gas. There are a number of controversial issues surrounding hydrofracking, including groundwater contamination and earthquakes, I won't deal with here. The characters wrestle with these topics in several scenes. This article focuses on what isn’t revealed in the book, the actual history of the Bristow’s fictional farm.
While researching background material I was surprised to learn that there is actually a lot of natural gas and coal in central North Carolina. Geological events similar to those producing the gigantic deposits located in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York (the Marcellus shale formation) also occurred farther south in North Carolina. Carbon rich organic material decomposed forming pockets of peat that was deposited deep in the earth where, over centuries, high temperatures and pressures produced natural gas and coal. This occurred in what are known as Triassic basins in the eastern United States some two hundred and fifty million years ago and resulted in an abundance of fossil fuel within the earth. The Deep River basin is one of several Triassic basins near Raleigh.
The business of energy was as lucrative back then as it is today and attempts at mining coal in this part of North Carolina date to the late 1700’s. Multiple companies made ventures into the coal mining business around the turn of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, every time it was attempted in the Deep River basin, near Sanford, mining had to be abandoned after methane gas explosions destroyed the operation. The most notable examples are the Egypt mine explosions in 1895 and 1900 and the 1925 Coal Glen disaster. The fifty-three fatalities that occurred in the Coal Glen mine make it North Carolina’s worst industrial accident to this day. Ironically, the miners were digging their own graves, inadvertently performing a primitive form of fracking. Their pickaxes and dynamite fractured the earth releasing methane into the mine shafts creating a work environment ripe for catastrophe. In FRACTURED the abandoned Coal Glen mine is located on John Bristow’s farm. Bristow and his farm foreman, Hector Ramirez have a conversation making reference to the infamous accident. This is a link to a website that provides excellent historical information regarding the Coal Glen mining disaster.
It also surprised me to learn North Carolina has recently passed laws allowing fracking. As expected, this caused heated controversy just as it did with my characters. The link below provides more information about the recent North Carolina Energy Modernization Act.
I’ve written a short story depicting the events at the Coal Glen mine on that fateful morning, Wednesday, May 27, 1925 on what is now John Bristow's farm.
THE DEMON OF DEEP RIVER
“There’s a demon in the ground,” said Cliff Davis as he rolled from his bunk, scratched his head, and began searching for his boots in the dim early morning light. “And he’s pissed off.” He found one boot and pulled it on. “I don’t want to go down today. We should go back to Alabama. There’s good work in Birmingham.” Davis stuck out his tongue like a yawning hound. The cigar from last night caused his mouth to taste like the ashes it produced. He wondered if he’d eaten a few. Then he felt the rhythm thumping in his skull, soft at first, then building like a crescendo; a bass drum pounding three-quarter time. He fell back on the cot and closed his eyes. “Let’s go home.”
“Here we go again,” said Francis looking at his friend who rolled his eyes and shook his head. The men occupying number three bunkhouse began stirring from sleep and dressing for another day in the mine. “Get up. You’re going to work with the rest of us. There ain’t no damn demon, or spirit or anything like that down there. And, if there was work back home that paid half as much as we’re making here you think I’d be in the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina? Don’t put ideas like that in your cousin’s head.”
“He don’t bother me,” replied seventeen year-old Claude Wood, two days arrived from their hometown of Ragland, Alabama. Davis and Francis Anderson had been working in the Coal Glen Mine for three months. They were almost a decade older than Wood and came to North Carolina for the black treasure formed from the swamps that covered this part of the country millions of years ago. They accepted the dangers of the exhausting work deep in the earth. Their families back home needed the money.
“It’s true,” said Davis. “That demon’s real, you know it. It caused the Egypt Mine explosion in ’95—forty-six men never came out. Did it again five years later, killing another twenty-six. We’re next.”
“Shut up,” said Francis. “Keep your nightmares to yourself.”
Davis knelt down and began tying his bootlaces. “Ain’t no damn bad dream. The Demon of Deep River is down there.”
“Is he always like this?” asked Claude as he pulled on his trousers.
“Only when he drinks moonshine with the old timers,” replied Francis tightening his belt and adjusting his battery. He looked at his friend. “Like last night.”
Davis ignored the comment. “They say it gets angrier with every cart hauled out.” He finished tying his boots and stood up.
“Then it must be really pissed off,” Francis said. “They’re coming up as fast as we can get’em filled; ten, sometimes fifteen an hour.”
“I’m telling ya,” said Davis. “The demon guards that coal like a dragon on a mound of jewels.”
Francis picked up a dirty sock off of his bed and threw it, bouncing it off his chest. Then he looked at Claude and laughed, “To hell with his dragon, get your gear on and let’s eat.” The scrawny boy finished buttoning his shirt and reached for his mining hat. This was a cloth cap fitted with a battery-powered headlamp. Claude checked to make sure the light worked and clipped the heavy battery to his leather belt on his right side. Francis helped him, making sure the light was working properly.
“Move the battery behind you.” Francis turned and showed him what he meant. The battery, which was about eight by six inches and two inches thick, was fastened to his belt in the middle of his lower back. The cord ran along his spine, up the back of his neck and over his cap to the light attached to the front of the bill. “You’re more balanced and it stays out of your way.”
“Thanks,” said Claud as Francis adjusted it.
“Come on, you’re wasting time,” Davis said. They stepped out of the barracks into the cool morning. A light haze clung to the pine trees beyond the buildings. It would be gone by the time the sun was above the treetops. By then they would be deep in the earth. A faint smell of wood smoke lingered in the air and bird noise came from the forest. The men made the short walk to the mess hall where they ate a breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. Several men were smoking and others were rolling cigarettes for their last smoke of the morning. Another group was finished and began wandering toward the mine. The superintendent had announcements that were to be given in a few minutes.
“Fillmore will be blasting at the 800 foot level,” said Francis referring to the senior demolition engineer from their hometown. “They must be in a hurry to crack that seam. Where’re you working today?” he asked Davis.
“With the Ragland crew, where else? I don’t work down there with anyone who ain’t from Alabama.”
“I was starting to wonder. You’ve been hanging out with Pappy and his bunch lately.”
“Don’t be crazy. Their from Raleigh,” he said shoving his friend. “But they got mighty good shine. Could use some right about now.”
Francis shook his head and turned to the boy. “We’re on level two this morning. The dynamite should be done by lunch. Stay close. Got that?”
“Yes sir,” replied Claude. A whistle sounded two short blasts like a locomotive on the edge of town indicating ten minutes until the beginning of the workday. The men took their trays and deposited them by the window where the dishwashers would be able to reach them. They left the cafeteria and walked the hundred or so yards down the muddy road to the entrance of the shaft. The rest of the miners were gathering for the start of their shift. About five minutes later most of the men were assembled.
“Gentlemen, your attention please!” yelled Howard Butler, the mine superintendent who stood on a platform above the arched entrance to the mine. Butler was the son of the president of the Carolina Coal Company, the owner of the mine, but the men didn’t care. He was regarded highly by all of them. Butler made sure they were paid a fair wage and genuinely cared for their safety. From where he was standing the arched mine shaft descended at a steep angle into the earth. Two sets of rails, that resembled railroad tracks, ran parallel into the mouth of the mine. The tracks on the left, as you looked at the opening, were for hauling carts full of coal out of the shaft. The carts were attached by rope to a huge steam powered windlass that pulled them up out of the mine. The empty carts rolled back into the mine on the right hand tracks. Mine workers were either loaders who shoveled the coal into the carts or engineers who set the dynamite charges to blast it free. When a miner completed filling a cart he attached a token to it that identified him as the loader who filled it. When the cart reached the surface it was weighed and the miner was credited for the pounds of coal he brought out of the earth. Butler continued his announcement. “There will be blasting in the fourth right lateral today.” He spoke loud and slowly. “This area is rich in coal. It should be easy to recover once the blasting is done. The first dynamite charges will be detonated around nine-thirty this morning. Be prepared and don’t be alarmed when you hear the blasts. No one has been assigned to work in either the fifth or the third levels this morning. I’ll be communicating with Bob Williams at the twelve hundred-foot level making certain everything is going as planned. You’re all good men and I appreciate your hard work and dedication. Be safe. I’ll see you this evening. Thank you for your attention.” The seventy-four miners started their slow descent into the dark shaft. Once they began descending into the darkness it would take them thirty to forty-five minutes to get to their work areas for the day. The mine was deep. The tools they would use were waiting for them in the carts down below.
“Two bits says I whip you by fifty pounds today,” said Davis.
“You’re on,” replied Claude.
Davis laughed. He was beginning to feel better as the drumming in his head faded. Their eyesight adjusted as they descended farther into the mine. Headlights weren’t turned on until absolutely necessary to conserve batteries. The damp air felt cool in the upper mine and was kept breathable by an elaborate baffle system that diverted air from a separate ventilation shaft. Fans kept the air moving. Coal dust was ubiquitous.
Back in his office Howard Butler paced the floor. He was anxious and shared his concern with Joe Richardson, Carolina Coal Company’s head machinist. “I’m worried about the methane levels. I’ve instructed Fillmore to test for gas after each blast. He won’t set a charge until it’s safe.”
“What is it with this part of the country? I’ve been mining coal most of my life and I’ve never seen the earth filled with so much methane,” said Richardson.
“The geologists say there’s a hundred million tons of coal in this area. We’ve barely brought up a hundred tons in the last two years. There’s a lot of coal and a lot of money down there. We have to deal with the gas. It’s damn dangerous, but we’ve no choice,” said Butler. He checked his pocket watch and refilled his half-bent Billiard with tobacco. “Fillmore should be setting the first charges in about ten minutes.” He struck a match and lit the pipe; a cloud of smoke enveloped his head. It filled the room with a mild sweet aroma. He walked from his office into a large room filled with desks and administrative supplies. The pipe clenched in his teeth left a trail of smoke as he furiously puffed. In the corner of the room was the only line of communication into the mine, the mine shaft telephone. Butler went to the phone, picked up the receiver and turned the crank.
A few seconds later a faint crackly voice responded, “Williams here.”
“How are things going down there?” Butler asked.
“No problems sir.”
“Has Fillmore set the charges?”
“Say again, it’s hard to hear you.”
“Has…Fillmore…set…the…charges?” repeated Butler loudly.
“Yes…on his way back…detonate in a few minutes. Here…now.” Williams continued the difficult reporting. “Connected…wire to the detonator switch…two charges rigged. Five…two, one.” Silence for a second then a huge boom was heard over the phone line.
“Bob, everything all right?” Silence. “Are you all right?” yelled Butler.
“Yes,” replied Williams. “Fillmore…checking charges…thinks only one detonated.”
“I hope he’s wrong,” said Butler waiting for them to finish testing for gas after the explosion. Several minutes went by and Butler relit his pipe.
“Boss, no more blasting…firedamp’s too high…Davy lamp is out,” came Williams’ faint response through the receiver Butler held to his ear.
“Damn it. Check the wiring to make sure both charges detonated,” Butler shouted into the phone. “The fuse could be smoldering. If the Davy is out get the men to the surface.”
“Yes sir,” said Williams. The phone line went dead.
Butler felt the earth shake and his knees buckle, then heard the monstrous clap of thunder. He knew it wasn’t. The blast was so loud and violent he dropped the telephone receiver and steadied himself to keep from falling as the earth trembled. Glass in the windows shook. The pipe dropped from his mouth and bounced on the floor scattering ashes and half burnt tobacco. He felt lightheaded and fought back the urge to vomit.
“Smoke’s coming from the mine!” someone yelled. Butler ran to the office door and looked toward the mine. Yellow and black smoke poured from the shaft entrance.
“Get my headlight!” Butler yelled. “Call an ambulance!” He hurried into his office, put on his hat and headlight, and raced toward the mine. The volume of smoke had started to dissipate. He noted that the ventilation system was still working. “There’s a chance,” he thought. “God help us.”
“Wait up sir, I’m going with you,” said Joe Richardson.
“No, wait here until things settle down,” said Butler.
“Not a chance. I’ve too many friends down there.” A sensation of dread crept over them as they made their way down into the hot, dark, smoky abyss.
“We’re walking into Hell,” Butler whispered as he descended further into the dark shaft. Aerosolized blast grit made his teeth crunch so he tied his handkerchief over his face like a bandit. As they felt their way down, stumbling along the mine shaft walls, the demon waited. The first explosions released methane from the fractured rock much the same way it would be mined nearly a century later; a primitive form of fracking. An immense volume of gas continued to leak from the shale and accumulate in the bowels of the Coal Glen mine. In the main shaft higher up the smoke was suffocating. Butler wiped the sweat from his forehead with a filthy sleeve. Tears streamed from both eyes caused by the burning acrid smoke and the fear of what he would soon find. “I wish I had a damn gas mask,” he said.
“I left mine in France,” said Richardson. “This is worse.”
Even with their headlamps it was difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Minutes passed as they inched their way onward dodging fallen rock and wooden beams in the semi-darkness. Butler reached out with his right hand touching the mine shaft wall and felt his way deeper into the hole. “Joe, where are you?”
“Right here Sir,” Richardson replied.
“How far have we gone?” Butler asked.
“We’re getting close to the second lateral. Did you hear that? I think I heard something.”
“Help! Help us!” yelled a faint voice in the darkness. A creaking sound emanated from the walls like a scream from the earth. The pleas for help were drowned by the noises coming from the rocks.
“Hang on, we’re coming!” answered Butler.
“Just ahead,” said Richardson. “It sounds like they might be in the lateral shaft.”
“Help!” someone yelled followed by coughing in the darkness.
Butler came to the end of the wall on his right side and realized he had reached the opening to an offshoot of the main shaft. This was the second lateral that he and Joe Richardson had been expecting to find. “Anyone in here?” yelled Butler.
“Yes, help, over here!” The voice came from the darkness to the right. Butler turned and began slowly picking his way into the shaft. He fought his way around a mining cart and rocks as he advanced in the smoky darkness. The headlamp did little to aid the search. Then he almost tripped over an object. It was soft, not like the rocks he’d been stumbling over. He reached down and touched the body of a fallen miner. He felt the skin of his neck and soft beard on his face.
“Are you alright?” Butler received no reply. He reached down and shook the body. Still no reply. Then he heard a sound a few yards farther down the shaft.
“Help me,” said an injured miner. “I think my leg is broken.”
“I’m coming. Who are you? Who was with you?” asked Butler. “Anderson, I’m Francis Anderson. I was with Cliff Davis and Claude Wood. We were working when the explosion happened. I thought the mine was caving in.”
“Let’s get you to the main shaft. I’ll come back and get your friends.”
“Don’t leave us.”
“I won’t. I’m Howard Butler, the superintendent. Joe Richardson is here too.”
“Thank you sir. My leg hurts bad.” They struggled to reach the point where the lateral met up with the main shaft. Butler left Anderson and went back to assist the other men. He and Richardson went back three more times dragging a total of six men to the main shaft in the smoky darkness. He was exhausted and realized Richardson was no longer with him. They’d become separated. The men dragged from the lateral shaft were in bad shape. Anderson couldn’t walk without help. The other men were close to asphyxiation and had injuries from falling rock and beams.
“The air is better in the main shaft. Stay here until I return. I’m going for help,” Butler told Anderson. He reached out with his left hand and found the wall and began making his way back to the surface. In spite of the heat and smoke he sensed a chill grip his neck then proceed down his body. He turned around in the darkness. Two red objects floated close to his face like embers spit from a blazing fire. "My god, it’s real." A deafening, horrid sound, like the earth retching, came from below. Butler turned and ran. He hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he heard the terrifying noise behind him coming from far down the shaft. The ground and walls shook and a rushing wind blew like a hurricane. Rocks rained down from the ceiling. He felt a sharp pain in his right wrist as he fell forward. More dense smoke came up from below. He gagged and couldn’t breathe. It was then he heard the wail, like a tortured beast close to the end of its suffering. An otherworldly voice whispered in his ear.
“Leave this place and never return!”
Butler staggered to his feet and moved forward. “I will,” he said. “Don’t kill me.” His headlamp no longer gave off light. He stumbled onward, desperate, like drowning man trying to reach the surface. His injured wrist throbbed as he reached out feeling his way forward. Panic seized him in the pitch darkness as he fought to breath. Then came the third explosion. A cataclysm, worse than the first two. The force of the hot wind threw him forward and against the walls of the mine shaft. He felt like a shell being shot out of a howitzer. His only thoughts were of survival. Butler crawled the last two hundred yards on two knees and one hand holding the broken wrist against his chest. It took him half an hour and seemed like half a lifetime. He finally saw light and reached the mine shaft entrance. Men rushed to help him to his feet.
“Mr. Butler. Can you stand? Come with me. It’s not safe here,” said a rescue worker. “Did you find anyone?”
“Six men at the second right lateral,” gasped Butler. He coughed and struggled for air. “Joe Richardson was with me.”
“Richardson made it out. He was just ahead of you. We can’t go into the mine. It’s too dangerous. There could be another explosion--too much afterdamp and methane. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“A blast from hell.” said another. “Was someone else with you? Richardson said he heard someone. Did you hear it?”
Butler looked back at the mine. Yellow black sulfuric smoke continued boiling up from the entrance like a volcanic inferno. “My God, there is a damn demon down there,” whispered Butler shaking his head. "The red dragon hurled from heaven straight into the earth."
Author’s Note: The events depicted may have happened. Howard Butler and Joe Richardson entered the mine after the explosion and made heroic attempts to rescue trapped miners. They lived to tell about it. The boys from Ragland, Alabama were miners listed as casualties of the disaster.