No happy ending at Belle Isle

By: Jim Bradshaw
When I hear of a disaster in a mine such as the one that trapped 33 workers in Chile, I think back to March 1968 and the tragedy of the Belle Isle salt mine near Calumet in St. Mary Parish. There was no happy ending to this one.

Belle Isle is one of five salt domes that, like the better known Avery Island and Jefferson Island, push up through the wetlands of south Louisiana. In the 1960s, mines drilled into the domes were considered safe by most authorities; the salt was solid enough that cave-ins were not a worry, and the risk of dangerous gases also was thought to be low.

There hadn’t been a fatal fire since salt mining was begun about 1920 — until March 6, 1968.

Twenty-one men from south Louisiana died in the Belle Isle mine when fire roared through the single shaft leading into the mining chamber 1,200 feet below ground.

They were trapped in bad air with no way out. The shaft had been sealed by the fire. There was no other shaft, not even for ventilation.

My weather records show that temperatures were about normal for early March in 1968, but I remember being very cold as a chilly wind whipped across the barren little island during the several days and nights it took to finally discover that all of the trapped miners had died.

I got to the island about the same time as a rescue team from the coal mining country of Kentucky began working to get to the men below ground. Ed Holeman of Sturgis, Ky., and Dilford Holmes of Madisonville, Ky. were the first rescuers to enter the mine. They were lowered in a makeshift bucket suspended on a cable. As they disappeared into the shaft, they stood back to back with their arms extended to keep the swinging bucket from smashing into the shaft walls.

I can still see them in my mind’s eye – relatively big men, unshaven, wearing miner’s hats and red shirts, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs. They were close-mouthed and didn’t speak to the media. Mining company officials did the talking and they didn’t have much to say either.

Sturgis and Holmes hoped to be able to cut through timbers that blocked the shaft, but were driven back by scalding steam created by water that had been poured into the mine to put out the fire.

It seemed to take forever for the mine to cool enough for real rescue work to begin. By then, it was too late.

At 6 a.m. on Friday, March 8, the sun was casting its first feeble glow over Belle Isle when the grim news was announced to the horde of newsmen who had by then descended on the tiny salt dome.

The families of the miners were gathered in a company warehouse at Calumet, 14 watery miles from the mine site. They got the news first.

Sixteen bodies had been found. There was little hope for the others.

The remaining five were found about three hours later. One of the men died of injuries suffered when he was struck by falling debris. The other 20 were the victims of deadly carbon monoxide.

The remains of the miners were lifted to the surface, three at a time, on the morning of March 12 in the same makeshift bucket that had been used by would-be rescuers.

Each ascent spread new pain through a community united by blood and by marriage. Two of the victims, John Christensen and Michael Boudreaux, had worked in the mine for only a week or less. Two others were twin brothers, Harris and Harry Touchet. Harris Touchet and victims Paul Granger and Leroy Trahan were married to three sisters. Arthur Olivier Jr. and two of his cousins, Alcide Olivier Jr. and Dallas Olivier, were among the dead. Wilbur “Bud” Jenkins’s wife was pregnant with their third child.

The coroner later reported that all the men had died about 6 a.m. on March 6, nearly a full day before Ed Holeman and Dilford Sturgis made their first unsuccessful descent down the still overheated mine shaft. There was never a chance to save them.

According to a Mine Rescue Association report, “Although every piece of available evidence was examined in detail during an investigation that required nearly six months, neither the cause of the fire nor the point of origin could be definitely established.”

You can contact Jim Bradshaw at jhbradshaw@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.

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