Goodbye Wifes and Daughters
In 1943, as the world dealt with trauma and tragedy in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, another catastrophe unfolded in Bearcreek, Montana. The Smith Coal Mine was one of the largest employers for the town, and the men worked six days a week around the clock to help provide coal for the war effort. But one morning, a fire broke out in the mine and 80 miners were trapped underground with little hope for escape. The rescue effort took days, and many women and children of the town waited with little rest or food outside of the mine waiting to see if their loved ones would come out alive. Only three made it out. One small group of miners holed up in a passageway, trying to trap and save some precious oxygen and block the poisonous carbon monoxide. As they waited, they wrote messages, and one wrote “Goodbye wifes[sic] and daughters.”
In the book of the same name, Susan Kushner Resnick tracked down the stories of what had happened. She interviewed family members and townspeople and tracked down newspaper reports, correspondence and other information to bring the 60+-year-old story to life. It reads quickly and smoothly. As a reader, you know what’s going to happen, the explosion is inevitable as is the death toll, and yet, Resnick keeps the book moving and engaging throughout.
The tragedy tore the community apart with the deaths of main earners in many families. Some women lost multiple loved ones: husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. Some men had to pull their fathers, grandfathers, or brothers bodies from the mine. But, it has also held the community together in a way. In present day Bearcreek, there are still anniversary events that commemorate the tragedy.
Resnick looks into those at fault for the fire and subsequent explosions. Faulty equipment, mismanagement, safety measures ignored in place of higher profits seemed to combine to cause the disaster, and yet the widows of the miners were given no money by the Montana Coal and Iron Company, who was, arguably, to blame.
I would have liked more information about the responses of the women after the tragedy, though the women are definitely mentioned and featured throughout. How did the women piece their lives back together? For those who left the town, were they ever able to leave the tragedy behind? For those who stayed, did they ever revisit the mine? Were all the deaths mourned? How did those who may have lost abusive or angry husbands or fathers responded (sadness, relief, and guilt, I would imagine)? Resnick touches on these questions, though I wanted more. Yet, perhaps it is unspeakable to sit and wait for days on end for the body of your husband or father. Perhaps some stories cannot be told.