ILLINOIS STYLE: Book on mine disasters is blend of politics, history

Belleville News-Democrat

February 13, 2007, 11:56 PM CST

VENEDY, Ill. -- Robert Hartley thought he was taking a different turn when he started writing about a couple of Southern Illinois coal mining disasters.

Before, he had written about politics and politicians. But he found that his new book "Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters," also involved a lot of politics -- the politics of coal mining regulation, economics and disaster prevention, and the attempts to blame the disaster on Venedy mine inspector Driscoll Scanlan.

The book is by Hartley and David Kenney and published by Southern Illinois University Press.

Hartley is a former Illinois journalist who also has written books about Lewis and Clark and former Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell. Kenney is an author and former cabinet member for Gov. James Thompson. He also taught political science at SIUC.

"David Kenney and I had done a book previously," Hartley said. "David is a native of Southern Illinois and is familiar with coal mining. I wanted to do a history or political history book."

They managed to do both simultaneously.

The book examines the politics, the self-interest and the economic interests that all led to the mine disasters. It chronicles the decades of neglect, the frequently dangerous conditions in the mines and the fights to make conditions better.

The first half of the book is about the March 25, 1947, Centralia No. 5 mine explosion that killed 119 men. The second half is about the Dec. 21, 1951, New Orient No. 2 mine in West Frankfort explosion that also killed 119.

"Of all the persons and organizations that fill out the accounts of Centralia and West Frankfort, his name stands forth: Driscoll O. Scanlan," the authors wrote. "Scanlan repeatedly told state officials and mine owners of the dangers to safety in the mine and pleaded for corrective action. Unfortunately his efforts were ignored."

Hartley said they were indebted to Gerald Scanlan of Venedy, who preserves his uncle's detailed papers on the event.

Driscoll Scanlan "reaches near-hero status," the authors wrote. "He was an amazing man. He had limited formal education but he got to be a mine inspector," Hartley said. "I suspect he kept all his papers out of self-protection. The job was short-term for any mine inspector. If anything happened, he knew there wasn't going to be anybody on his side."

"His experience reminds us of the futility of being a single warning voice in a highly politicized system. He faced a moral dilemma that haunted him for the rest of his life," the authors wrote.

Authorities attempted to blame Scanlan for not shutting down the mine, something he had official authority to do. But Scanlan countered with explanations and testimony that showed that if he had done so, he would have been fired and the mine reopened anyway, so instead he continued to send in negative inspection reports and agitate for change.

Hartley said writing the book was really quite an incredible experience.

"The minute I got involved in it, I couldn't let it go," Hartley said. "We were welcomed into homes and became, really, a part of the families."

Copyright 2007, The Associated Press