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CAVE-IN! Rescue of the Norrie Six.

One of the most dreadful mining disasters in Michigan's Upper Peninsula occurred on May 13, 1912, at the Norrie Mine in Ironwood. The city of Ironwood is located a few hundred feet from the Montreal River, the state border between Michigan and Wisconsin.

On that fateful day, word came to the surface that there was a serious cave-in within the Norrie Mine. A cave-in usually meant that, deep within a mine, a ceiling had collapsed. It was quickly determined that was exactly what had happened inside the Norrie Mine. Men scrambling for safety were crushed by rock jarred loose by the cave-in. The first few hours were spent determining if there were survivors at the main point of the cave-in and where rescuers might look for other crews of men.

Underground mining took place in cold, dark, and wet tunnels just large enough for wiry, small-framed men to navigate with shovels, picks, and small air hammer drills. Holes were drilled into the iron ore vein, charged with dynamite, and blasted. Jagged, sharp-edged ore was transported to the surface and sent to mills in Chicago, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana.

The layouts of most underground iron ore mines were all relatively the same. Within the shaft, or main entrance, of the mine was the skip, or elevator, used by men to enter and exit the mine as well as to transport ore to the surface. Tunnels, or drifts, led to stopes, step-like excavations formed by the removal of ore from around the mineshaft. Each drift opened to a stope where production mining took place. Drifts were usually numbered, starting from the drift closest to the surface. The "rub" of a drift was a parallel tunnel running under the drift and was used primarily as an air passageway.

The drills used in those mines were cutting-edge technology at the time. They were powered by compressed air produced on the surface of the mine and run through a web of underground steel pipes to the locations where mining took place. The drill was a steel rod with a bit threaded on the end of the steel. Drilled holes were then powdered and blasted. Mining occurred at multiple sites at the same time within the mine.

Following the cave-in at the Norrie Mine, a status report from the mine's management stated that seven men were killed and another six were missing. A pile of loose rock now blocked the opening of the twentieth level. Attempts to remove the caved ground proved to be impossible. Life was confirmed on the twentieth level when tapping could be heard beyond the cave-in. A rescue party made its way from the main shaft to the airway, or rub, below the twentieth level. A 1-inch-diameter hole, measuring 12 feet deep, was drilled into the ceiling of the rub to a spot where the tapping sound was heard. When the drill steel broke through the floor of the twentieth level, a conversation between the rescuers and the trapped miners took place.

It was established that the six trapped miners were all in good condition. However, miner Vincent Zambrowitz's hand was caught in a catch of steel, wood, and rock as a result of the cave-in. Ten feet of solid rock separated the two crews of men in the mine. Those below were equipped with an air-driven drill and dynamite. The rescue plan was to drill short holes, charge the holes with dynamite, and blast. The risk of triggering additional caving was significant. The plan was daring and dangerous for both the rescuers and the entombed.

The repeated blasts helped produce a hollow indentation through the solid rock that slowly inched upward with each cut. The rescue team knew the dangers of the plan since vibration is the main trigger of a cave-in. The ongoing drilling and blasting produced repeated vibrations. It is likely that the men drilled, charged, and blasted several times before they broke through to the floor of the twentieth level.

George Hronkin, one of the trapped miners, later told his grandson that his "upper body was ripped to shreds as [he] twisted through the hole to escape." The opening created by blasts fractured rock into razor-sharp pieces with shards pointing in all directions--but to the miners, that opening must have looked like the gateway back to the world.

Five of the six miners were immediately rescued via the rub of the twentieth level. Vincent Zambrowitz remained trapped with his hand wedged between an air pipe, timbering, and shifting earth. It was recorded that Zambrowitz was rescued first by freeing his hand and then by twisting him through the opening just as the five miners before him did. His arm later had to be amputated, and he died two weeks after his rescue.

The heroic resolve demonstrated at the disastrous cave-in at the Norrie Mine on May 13,1912, was common in the mining towns along the iron ranges of the Western Upper Peninsula and the shores of Lake Superior. The miners of that era left a proud heritage that is still evident today.

By Ben Kudwa

Ben Kudwa is a retired agriculturist and Michigan State University graduate with experience in farming, mining, and agribusiness.

Caption: Above: Ironwood miners underground, c. 1910. (All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Nerking, unless otherwise noted.)

Caption: Left: The iron mines of Ironwood, Michigan. c. late 18005. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. LC-DIG-det-4a041 71.)

Caption: Above: The Norrie Mine, c. 1910. Right: Miners at the Norrie Mine in Ironwood, c. 1905.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Title Annotation:FOCUS ON MICHIGAN
Author:Kudwa, Ben
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2019
Words:931
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