*Spoiler Alert! The following contains important plot points of the Knox Mine Disaster documentary. Please be aware if you haven’t seen the film yet*
by Alex Skopic
“I would kill them, if I could. And I’m sorry to say that, because I’m a Catholic. But they took my dad.”
These are the most haunting words from David and Albert Brocca’s new documentary on the Knox Mine Disaster, which began screening last month. They come from the daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner who died in January of 1959, a victim of unsafe labor practices and rampant corruption. There are many such stories, and in their film, the Broccas have created a fitting memorial to the lives lost in the Anthracite’s last great disaster. More, they have formed a damning indictment of the capitalist bosses responsible for the tragedy.
To anyone who grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, the Knox Mine Disaster needs no introduction – its shadow lingers on the area to this day, in a thousand half-remembered family stories. The images are unforgettable: on a cold, clear morning in the middle of winter, the Susquehanna River burst through its bed into the mines below, flooding tunnels and shafts with terrifying speed. Men scrambled for their lives, running and riding the mine carts to warn their comrades. Before they knew it, the exits began to fill with water, blocking their escape. What followed was a day of terror and heroism unlike any other in labor history.
In many ways, The Knox Mine Disaster plays heavily on the larger-than-life nature of its subjects. Deep in the dark, miners like Amadeo Pancotti showed remarkable courage, climbing by fingers and toes up the sheer rock face of the Eagle Air Shaft to bring help to the men below. In the Broccas’ film, Pancotti’s climb takes center stage, retold by a striking black-and-white animation sequence courtesy of Image Comics artist Benjamin Mackey. The scene is impossible to watch without emotion, as the slightest slip would mean the man’s death; in screenings, audiences breathed an audible sigh when he finally reached safety.
In the end, Pancotti received the Carnegie Medal for his efforts, which saved the lives of thirty-three of his fellow workers. Others, however, were not so lucky. Samuel Altieri, John Baloga, Benjamin Boyar, Francis Burns, Charles Featherman, Joseph Gizenski, Dominic Kaveliski, Frank Orlowski, Eugene Ostrowski, William Sinclair, Daniel Stefanides, and Herman Zelonis were unable to outrun the mine’s collapse, and lost their lives as the tunnels flooded. In the film, surviving family members tell their stories, preserving the memory of the Knox workmen for all time. Almost universally, they voice their anger and resentment for the mine’s leadership, who they see as the cause of their loved ones’ deaths.
That the Knox Mine Disaster could have been avoided is beyond doubt. That the callous actions of the company bosses amount to murder, is the unavoidable conclusion at the heart of this documentary. With almost forensic precision, the Broccas lay out the evidence, culled from hundreds of court documents, newspaper clippings, and archival films. They show how the mine’s owners enthusiastically backed the practice of “pillar-robbing,” chipping away at vital support structures for the sake of a few extra carts of coal. They document how the chief engineers, Ralph Fries and Bill Receski, knowingly crossed established “stop lines,” taking their tunnels into unstable territory beneath the river itself. Finally, they show how officials at every level of the Knox company practiced labor bribery and bullied their employees, sending spies to working-class bars in the area to sniff out and crush any hint of unrest. These men’s hands drip with blood, and the film pulls no punches depicting the fact. For this reason alone, it is a vital testimony.
The Knox Mine Disaster is also a crime movie, as the Broccas trace the chain of investigations and corruption hearings that followed the miners’ deaths. The plot thickens as court footage reveals the role of organized crime and racketeering, following from low-level managers like Fries and Receski all the way to the mine’s ultimate owners – including August J. Lippi, who secretly held stock in the company while also running the local miners’ union, and John Sciandra, whose brother-in-law was a powerful figure in the New York Mafia. If the documentary has one flaw, in fact, it is the heavy emphasis given to the Mafia’s involvement. As any student of the Anthracite era will know, the abuse and exploitation of workers was hardly limited to the criminal element, and placing the blame on a handful of mobsters threatens to obscure the fact that “legitimate” operations were often just as bad. However, this is a nitpick, and certainly does not detract from the film’s ability to spin a thrilling story.
Finally, the documentary is framed and given emotional weight by the music of Lex Romane, a veteran Pennsylvania folk musician and chronicler of the Anthracite. Simple and understated, Romane’s guitar helps to place the viewer viscerally in another time, while his lyrics convey the desperation and melancholy that came with a life in the mines. There are shades of Springsteen and Pete Seeger in his performance, and it would be hard to think of a better fit for the film’s tone.
The Knox Mine Disaster is not an easy experience – but history, and class conflict, never are. One leaves this film with a sense of deep injustice, and of anger at a corporate elite who largely got away with murder. That old widow, in her one searing interview scene, speaks for an entire class of people who could cheerfully kill a mine boss, and watching the Broccas’ work it is difficult not to sympathize. The film is a monument to the men of Pennsylvania’s coal fields who never came home, and unafraid to name the people and systems to blame for their fate. As such, it is more important now than ever, as late-stage capitalism continues to wreak havoc on the lives of working people across the world. As we fight for a better future, it never hurts to remember where we came from – and to honor the ones who were cut down before their time.
Alex Skopic is an English and Political Science student at Misericordia University, where he specializes in working-class literature and the poems of William Blake. His short fiction has appeared in Rock and a Hard Place Magazine and The New Accelerator.