Discussed in this essay:
The Brunist Day of Wrath, by Robert Coover. Dzanc Books. 1,100 pages. $30.
One evening in December 1951, a coal mine in southern Illinois combusted and collapsed. An observer later remarked that it looked as if a bomb had been dropped into a subway. A chance spark or cigarette had lit a pocket of marsh gas, and fire flooded the mine’s vasculature, splintering timbers, overturning heavy machinery, and bending steel rails into fishhooks. The men closest to the blast were carbonized. Those farther away felt only a warm wind and an uncomfortable pressure in their ears as the tunnels went black.
The Orient No. 2 explosion was the deadliest the country had seen in decades. Some 120 men were entombed. Within hours the blocked tunnels began filling with carbon monoxide; rescuers recalled the sight of pigeons roosting in the mine’s elevator shaft dropping dead. The trapped men curtained themselves off from the gas (a technique called bratticing) and awaited rescue, but many knew it would not come in time. They wrote farewell notes to their families on cigarette packages, cough-drop boxes, whatever they could find. (“I love you all way. I go tonight with Christ. I love Him too.”) A group of about a dozen men poured water on the dirt and buried their heads in it, hoping to escape the gas.