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Fish Or Cut Bait

And Then a Hero Comes Along
by Bob Ciminel


October 18, 2004

Ketchikan, Alaska - On March 12, 1904, Andrew Carnegie, founder of the United States Steel Corporation, established the Carnegie Hero Fund, endowing it with $5 million in US Steel bonds bearing 5 percent interest. That initial investment has allowed the Fund to award over 8,800 medals and more than $24 million in grants and scholarships over its 100-year history. Recipients of the Carnegie Hero Award are people like you and I who suddenly find themselves in situations where someone needs help. Often, these awards are given posthumously, as was the case for the award's first two recipients. Carnegie's intent in establishing the Hero Fund was not to reward heroism. In describing the Fund, Carnegie said, "I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this fund, knowing well that heroic action is impulsive; but I do believe that, if the hero is injured in his bold attempt to serve or save his fellows, he and those dependent upon him should not suffer pecuniarily."

jpg Harwick Mine

Harwick Mine - Map courtesy the US Geological Survey

The event that prompted Andrew Carnegie to create the Hero Fund occurred in Western Pennsylvania in the tiny community of Harwick, about 15 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The event is best described in the words of someone who was intimately involved, Mr. F. W. Cunningham, an inspector for the Pennsylvania Department of Mines. On February 6, 1905, Mr. Cunningham ended his annual report with the following statement: "I regret to report an increase in the number of fatal accidents during [1904], caused by the great disaster in the Harwick mine on January 25."

At 8:15 a.m. on that cold January morning, 177 men were killed when an explosion ripped through the No. 4 Left Butt entry. The explosion was caused by an improperly placed charge of black powder that ignited methane gas, which had accumulated in the entry because of poor ventilation. Normally, the mine had 65,000 cubic feet of air per minute circulated through its working by a large fan. However, the cold weather had caused ice to form in the intake tunnel, which reduced the volume of air going into the workings. This allowed the methane gas to build up in the mine.

Once the methane gas ignited, it created a tremendous pressure wave that caused the coal dust lying on the passageways and walls of the mine to become suspended in the air. The coal dust exploded, causing more dust to ignite. The fire spread with ferocious velocity throughout the mine. The force of the explosion blew a mule 300 feet up the mine shaft. It was over in a matter of seconds.

Shortly after the explosion, Selwyn Taylor, a mining engineer, repaired the damaged ventilation fan. Taylor and a group of men entered the mine around 6 p.m. Finding one man alive at the bottom of the shaft, Taylor set off into the workings to search for more survivors. Inspector Cunningham found Taylor dead later than evening when he entered the mine as part of another search and rescue team. Later, another rescuer, Daniel Lyle, entered the No. 4 Left Butt without the knowledge of his superiors to search for victims. He also died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

jpg Carnegie medal

Carnegie Medal - Photo courtesy the Carnegie Hero Fund

Andrew Carnegie was so moved by the sacrifices of Mr. Taylor and Mr. Lyle that he established the Hero Fund as a way of publicly acknowledging their heroism and providing a means of support for their survivors. The first award after the fund's establishment was presented posthumously to Daniel Davis, who died while attempting to save a fellow miner from suffocation in Sherodsville, Ohio. Twelve men were posthumously awarded the Carnegie Medal for their actions on September 23, 2001 while trying to rescue a coworker trapped by a methane explosion at a mine near Brookwood, Alabama. Over 150 medals have been awarded to individuals taking part in mine rescues since the Fund's establishment.

Although it was originally established to honor coal miners, Carnegie did not put limits on who could receive the awards. Carnegie Hero Fund awards have gone to people who have saved victims from burning buildings, cave-ins, drowning, avalanches, attempted murder, and even rabid dogs.

The awards are given five times a year. The most recent awards were presented to 26 individuals, six of whom died in their attempt to render aid. Thirty five Alaskans have won Carnegie Hero awards. The first was awarded posthumously to Joseph Boutin in 1927 for his attempt to save a man who fell from a boat in the Copper River. The most recent award went to Jeffery Harriman in 2001 for rescuing a man being attacked by a knife-wielding intruder at an Anchorage elementary school.

I believe it was the Apostle Paul who said, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." The people who posthumously win a Carnegie Hero Award go one step farther; they lay down their lives for strangers.


Bob Ciminel ©2004
All Rights Reserved

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