​Mine 21 Explosion: Telling the Story

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
Pain, bravery and change haunt the tragedy of the 1981 Whitwell mining explosion where 13 miners lost their lives. The story is told in the short documentary “Mine 21,” produced by University classics professor Chris McDonough, directed by videographer and Sewanee alum Stephen Garrett, and unveiled through the eyes of two current students, Kelsey Arbuckle and Alexa Fults, whose pasts are intimately linked to the mines.
A miner’s cigarette lighter triggered the explosion in a methane-glutted passage where the miners should have never been sent to work. Temperatures reached 3,400 degrees. The ensuing federal lawsuit brought by the miners’ widows prompted more rigorous enforcement of safety regulations, saving thousands of lives.
How to tell that story?
McDonough learned about the explosion in 2014 from HVAC technician Tony Gilliam, who, like many others came to work at the University after the Plateau area mines closed in 1997. McDonough wrote about the explosion in his blog, speculating the story would make a good documentary.
“This was the 911 for people on the Plateau—the worst mining disaster in Tennessee since the introduction of modern safety precautions,” said McDonough. “Many of my colleagues who work at the institution where I do don’t know anything about this disaster.”
Two years later Arbuckle, then a University sophomore, read an article in the Grundy County Herald newspaper commemorating the 35th anniversary of the explosion.
“I never knew my grandfather Charles Myers because he died in 1981,” Arbuckle said. Her grandfather was a miner, and she put two and two together. Her mother was reluctant to talk about the tragedy. Arbuckle searched the internet for information. She found McDonough’s blog and contacted him.
“Can we talk?” she asked.
The documentary idea took on new life. McDonough secured a small amount of funding from the University and community resources, and brought in Garrett who’d recently produced admissions and fundraising videos for the University.
Arbuckle brought in her Grundy County High School friend Alexa Fults, who came to the University in the fall of 2017 as a freshman. Fults was writing a research paper exploring the effects of the collapse of the coal mining industry on the local economy.
“My great, great, great, great, great uncle discovered coal on the Plateau,” Fults said. “My family joked, ‘you’d be an heiress if the coal industry didn’t crash and burn.’”
“What is interesting about history is the connection to people in the present,” Garrett said. “You want the audience to authentically relate to human beings.”
Arbuckle provided an intimate “authentic-in.” Not only was her grandfather killed in the explosion. Her grandmother, Barbara Myers, who works for Sewanee Dining making desserts, had testified in the 1987 federal lawsuit.
“We explored the story by telling it,” Garrett said.
In one scene Arbuckle, her mother, and her grandmother sit down together and talk about the explosion for the first time.
Garrett also filmed a conversation between three former miners.
“They’d never gotten together and talked about the disaster in this way before. All three men broke down.”
Video footage from the Marion County Miners Museum features miners joking and talking underground. A photograph shows miners and their families at a company picnic.
McDonough located TV footage of Myers testifying before the Senate at the federal hearing.
Filming took place the first week of June over four days. Initially denied permission to use an aerial drone to film the remnants of the coal processing facility that served the Whitwell mines, approval came through just before Garrett left town.
The processing facility is scheduled to be torn down. The actual mining sites are overgrown in brush. “The last of the mines was covered over this past April,” McDonough said. “Elementary school children planted trees on the site.”
McDonough hopes the documentary prompts the community, especially University students, to engage with local history.
“Barbara Myers was a young widow working at the shirt factory and struggling to raise a family when she went to Washington, D.C. to be questioned by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy,” said McDonough. “I want students to see the woman making their pecan pie is the superhero here.”
Some families received a settlement from the mining company in a separate lawsuit.
“The federal lawsuit was about getting the Mine Safety and Health Administration to do its job so people like Charlie Myers didn’t have to die,” McDonough said.
The Whitwell mine located in Marion County employed many men from Grundy County. Appropriately, the site of the premiere screening, Monteagle Elementary School, is located in Marion County, but serves many Grundy County youth. Kelsey Arbuckle’s mother, Tina-Myers Arbuckle, whose father was killed in the explosion, teaches there.

The premiere will be at Monteagle Elementary School at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 24. There will be a screening at 5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Sewanee Union Theatre. A question and answer session will follow both screenings. To see the trailer, go to www.mine21.com