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The Explosion
The Spectator
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 by Frank Shortt
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Each morning, during the five-day work week, bus 17 from Garden High School wended its way along the winding Route 460 (pre-four-lane) picking up children along the way.

This old bus ran for many, many years until its retirement sometime in the 1960's. The route ran all the way up to Shortt Gap, on the Tazewell/Buchanan county line, then back down the route making many side trips. The first side trip was up the hollow at the fork of the Levisa River (pronounced Lew-Visy by the old-timers) and where Grassy Creek dumps into it. The next side trip was up Addison Hollow just above Marvin. Later on down 460, a side trip was made up Contrary Creek to Bill Young Mountain, with stops at Clifton Fork and Pilgrims Knob. All the stops heading downriver from Contrary Creek were along Route 460, including Keen Mountain and Colley Branch.

The two most memorable drivers of bus 17 were, Mr. Emerson Brown and Mrs. Grace Wooldridge, both teachers at Garden High School. Their incomes were boosted slightly by their willingness to drive these steep, winding roads in the upper Buchanan County areas. Dodging coal trucks and avoiding slick roads in winter, became a hazardous pastime for these two hardy pioneers of the Buchanan County School system.

As the bus passed the coal camp at Red Jacket, part of Keen Mountain, one's eyes were drawn to the beautifully manicured lawns of the well-kept dwellings below. These were provided by the Red Jacket management for their upper supervisorial staff and, when available, some of the straw bosses and workers with seniority. The old company store was a landmark of beauty against the stark, cliff-laden landscape. How many upper-Buchanan County farm youngsters yearned to live in one of those wonderful edifices. Their existence required 'early to bed and early to rise' as compared to the students from the Red Jacket Camp who were considered the upper class by most of the hillbilly children. It was known, until later, that the 'farm fare' was probably much healthier that what the camp children were exposed to.

Seeing this peaceful scene from above, looking out the window of bus 17, one would not have imagined, that in 1938, one of the vilest disasters that ever occurred in Buchanan County had taken place in this peaceful community. On April 23, 1938, the night shift of the Red Jacket mine was greeted by an explosion of tremendous magnitude. Some compared it to the eruption of a huge volcano. In this explosion, the means of provision for at least 45 homes was suddenly at an abrupt end. Many tears were shed, and many prayers offered, as families waited breathlessly for word of their loved ones. Heat inside the inferno was so extreme that rescuers were limited to working for 30 minute intervals. The men who perished were: ERNEST BOYD; HAMMOND VARNEY; ORVILLE STREET; COY REED; J. L. BLEVIUS; KILMER PATRICK; ED GILLEY; CLAUD DOLLAR; J. W. COMBS; GLENN RATCLIFF; ORVILLE NORRIS; F. BUCKLER; MARCUS THACKER; O. C. HITCHCOCK; CHARLIE KEEN; W. H. GRANT; WALKER SUTHERLAND; ANCILL OWENS; W. E. WILLIS; LEE MARSHALL; WALKER SOLOMON, KENDRICK SULLIVAN; DREW HOWARD; E. W. ELLEM, and CHARLES MILLER.
E. H. FISK; R. H. GENTRY; CHARLIE KING; GRANVILLE GOINS; HARVEY KING; JOHN ROWE; SMITH HARRINGTON; D. E. COMPTON, and his brother JOHN COMPTON; FRANK RATCLIFF; HARPER LESTER; CECIL GUILD; FLOYD COMPTON and his son, F. S. COMPTON; TOM MAY and his twin, LONNIE MAY; TOM RATCLIFF; ORVILLE COLLINS; ROBERT WATSON; and LUTHER ZIEMORE. Most of these names are quite well known in Buchanan County. One, Ernest Boyd, left Rondal and Pauline, who both attended Grimsleyville Elementary and Garden High Schools and each one had to pass the scene of the demise of their father every day the bus ran to Garden High School.

All too often we humans place more emphasis on the mundane activities of survival and forget the importance of love of family, togetherness, and, especially Who provides all our needs. A sudden explosion or other disaster can jar us back to the reality of what is really important.

Red Jacket as she looked in 1938