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The Knox Mine Disaster left 12 men dead and an economy in ruins.

A catastrophe lives on in N.E. Pa.

"I must have cried a river of tears," said Audrey Baloga Calvey, at a historical marker recalling the Knox Mine Disaster in Pittston, Pa. Her father was one of 12 miners killed.
"I must have cried a river of tears," said Audrey Baloga Calvey, at a historical marker recalling the Knox Mine Disaster in Pittston, Pa. Her father was one of 12 miners killed.Read moreRICK SMITH / Associated Press

PITTSTON, Pa. - Audrey Baloga Calvey lives within shouting distance of the coal mine that became her father's tomb, and his sudden death at age 59 still occupies her thoughts.

Especially now, 50 years later.

On Jan. 22, 1959, the Susquehanna River smashed into a mine shaft north of Wilkes-Barre, killing a dozen men and spilling billions of gallons of water into coal mines throughout the region.

The calamity known as the Knox Mine Disaster exposed breathtaking corruption among company and union officials. It also drove a stake through the heart of what remained of the anthracite industry in northeastern Pennsylvania, sending the region into an economic tailspin from which it has yet to fully recover.

"Even though it's going to be 50 years . . . I could still remember the heartache, the heartbreak, the grief, the sorrow and the tears. I must have cried a river of tears," said Calvey, 65.

Calvey and her father, Czechoslovakian immigrant John Baloga, shared a tight bond. When he came home from the mine each day, the teenager would hand him a shot and a beer, strip off his wet socks and blackened boots, and draw his bath. She said he was a gentle soul who never raised his hand or his voice to his four children.

A few years ago, as Calvey thought about what she would do for the 50th, the retired seamstress decided to pick up her needle once again.

The result: a 43-by-45-inch piece of cutwork embroidery that features 24 hand-drawn forget-me-not flowers - one for each of the dozen men and their families - as well as a roll call of the victims' names, a shroud-covered cross, a miner's pickax, shovel and helmet, and an inscription: "Knox Mine Disaster January 22 1959 Twelve Men Died."

The piece, which took hundreds of hours to plan and execute, is on display at Scranton's Anthracite Heritage Museum - itself a small gem that tells the story of an industry that drew waves of European immigrants to northeastern Pennsylvania in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Kenneth Wolensky, a historian who cowrote a book on the Knox Mine Disaster, said northeastern Pennsylvania "was an area whose entire economy was dependent on a single industry, and that was coal mining."

Anthracite mines employed more than 11,000 people in the Wyoming Valley in 1959, providing jobs with good wages, if not pleasant working conditions.

Mine owners often cut corners to squeeze every drop of profit they could, and the Knox Coal Co. - whose founder was reputed mob boss John Sciandra - was no different.

Knox officials ordered an illegal excavation underneath the Susquehanna River, where a rich vein of coal promised handsome returns.

"Miners were told, 'If you want a job, you have to keep your mouth shut.' And they didn't know anything else to do, so they did the mining," Calvey, 65, recalled in an interview at her home in Port Griffith, a former mining village along the banks of the Susquehanna.

Though state regulations required coal companies to maintain rock cover of at least 35 feet when tunneling underneath a waterway, the roof of Knox Coal's River Slope Mine was only a few feet thick at the time of the breach.

Calvey said her father had predicted trouble at the mine.

"When the water would get high, he'd say, 'God, if that river ever breaks in, we'll be drowned like rats,' " she said.

The river broke through, trapping 81 miners and creating a whirlpool that sucked 10 billion gallons of water through the void and into the region's mines. Many of the trapped miners wandered underground for hours before making their escape through an abandoned air shaft.

Workers eventually plugged the hole with railroad cars, boulders, dirt and hay bales. But the damage was done. Within months, more than 7,000 jobs were lost. Deep mining in the Wyoming Valley was finished.

Three people served jail time, including a United Mine Workers official, August Lippi, who had illegally become a silent partner in now-defunct Knox Coal.

Calvey remains bitter about the lack of accountability. Her family sued and received $12,500 several years after the disaster. It was a pittance - Calvey had long since dropped out of school to help support the family.

"Not one of the owners of that mine ever came to my family, or me, and said, 'We're sorry for causing you this heartache,' " she said. "Not one. Not till this day even."