April 15, 1981: Dreams cut short
It’s been 25 years but Randy Litwiller still remembers April 15, 1981.That’s what happens when your brother is killed in a coal mine explosion.Danny Litwiller had dreams of whipping up soufflés, quiches and sweet desserts. But culinary school didn’t come cheap and the paycheck that the coal mines provided was impossible to ignore.”He wanted to become a chef,” Randy Litwiller, 49, says from his office at Elk Creek Mine in Somerset recently. He takes time to reflect on the questions about his brother and the day when 15 coal miners died.”He needed to make some money and he got the job to help pay for his way through school,” Randy says.As the mine superintendent at Elk Creek, Randy is now in his 30th year in the coal mining profession. With a mining engineering degree, Randy knew his future would be in mining.Looking back at the day the mining profession claimed his brother, Randy remembers one thing that makes his brother’s death tough to think about.Danny didn’t want to be a coal miner. At 21, he was the second youngest victim in the Dutch Creek No. 1 mine explosion. “His goal was not to become a coal miner,” Randy says “His goal was to become a chef in some fancy place and he thought coal mining would be a good way to make money to help him do that.”Randy pauses, the longest pause of the interview. “That to me made it tough because he wasn’t motivated to be a coal miner – like the others (who were killed). Most of them were full-fledged, this is my career type of people.
“So that made it difficult for me to think about. Knowing his interest wasn’t in coal mining. His interest was in getting funds to finish school.”Randy did the exact same thing. He worked for Mid-Continent for two years then went back to college to get the degree. Then returned to Mid-Continent where he worked until the mines shut down in 1991.Danny was Randy’s little brother by six years. Now 25 years later, the memories have dimmed but Randy never forgets the adventuresome brother who loved the outdoors and dreamed of being a chef.”He was a real outdoors guy, he was into rock climbing,” he says.Back when rock climbing wasn’t the thing to do. Long before the adventure and extreme sports were even on the radar of youngsters, Danny Litwiller was scaling the cliffs of the region.”I remember up by Hanging Lake, where the tunnels are now, he was climbing up there and some of the soft limestone broke loose.”Randy offers a little grin as he remembers that day.”He was clamped in but he fell. I remember he cut his legs to the bone and he had to finish climbing down the side of that cliff to go in and get fixed up.”Randy’s grin transforms into a proud smile.”He took it in stride, that’s the kind of guy he was.” Randy then glances out the window at the fresh snow. “He’d go camping this time of year in weather like this.”
Another proud smile.April 15, 1981 remains a tormented memory for Randy.”I was working the graveyard shift so I was home when I got the call. They told me my brother was in the mine. My boss told me why don’t you just stay home,” Randy says.But that wasn’t an option.”I told him I’d just as soon come up and wait. There wasn’t anything I could do but I wanted to be there.”Randy says he can’t really explain all the emotions he felt that day.There was tremendous worry but there was hope. There’s always hope. As a coal miner, there was also an understanding of reality.Explosions in mines are never good.”I think I had an understanding of what was happening but at the same time I was hoping,” he says, then thinks. “I don’t know if you’d call it hoping for a miracle or whatever, but I was hoping that the outcome would be positive.”But as a coal miner, he knew miracles are rare.
“I think deep down I knew (the outcome) wasn’t going to be good.”Two days later hopes for a miracle turned to sobs and grief. The reality was that 15 Mid-Continent coal miners, including 21-year-old Danny Litwiller, were dead.The pain and agony swept the community. Randy says the first week after was the most difficult. Fifteen funerals for 15 friends, colleagues, fathers, cousins, nephews and brothers.Randy says when his birthday rolls around every year he thinks about Danny. “Every time I have a birthday I do the math real quick and see how old he would have been.”That’s the toughest thing about death – the question of what these men could have done never goes away.It leaves a mammoth void.Memories and a void is all that remains.As the snow settled on a spring day in Somerset, Randy Litwiller talked about his brother and a day when 15 lives were taken when a methane-ignited explosion ripped through a coal mine..”I’ll never forget it. It was tough on a lot of people.”It’s a day when one young man’s dreams of becoming a chef ended and the memories of 15 tragic deaths still simmers to this day.
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