updated 1/7/2006 11:06:45 AM ET 2006-01-07T16:06:45

Notes found in dead miners’ pockets. The confusion, hope and then agony of loved ones waiting for word of rescue.

The news this week from West Virginia’s Sago Mine was hauntingly familiar for 77-year-old Bill Niepoetter. He lost his father and three other relatives in a coal mine explosion that killed 111 in this southern Illinois town in 1947.

Niepoetter, a college student at the time, rushed home upon word of the explosion. He gathered with others to wait hours for word of their friends’ and relatives’ fates.

“One rescue worker would come up and say, ‘It’s bad, there are not going to be any survivors.’ The next one would come up and say, ‘It’s not going to be as bad.’ We had no notion,” he said.

Rescue workers would emerge from the mines, their faces sooty and grim.

“I swear that if the rescue guys would come in right now, I’d be able to recognize them. Their faces,” Niepoetter said. “It’s something you never forget.”

March 25, 1947 is the day Niepoetter’s 41-year-old father Henry “Peck” Niepoetter and 110 others died. Thirty-one miners managed to survive.

It was later discovered that an explosive charge meant to loosen coal in the mine ignited coal dust hanging in the air 545 feet below ground.

At first, Niepoetter was hopeful, remembering that several years earlier his father had managed to dig his way out of a mine when its roof caved in. That hope faded as a searcher said he had found his own brother, dead with a lunch bucket under his arm.

The man told Niepoetter that 15 or 20 other bodies were lined up below. More corpses were freed as the digging pressed on, some near notes the victims scribbled to loved ones in their final moments — something also found with some Sago miners.

“Be good boys. Please your father. O Lord help me,” one of the Centralia miners wrote.

Woody Guthrie later memorialized those notes in his song “Dying Miner.”

Searchers brought the first of the miners’ bodies to the surface a day later. It was four days before Niepoetter learned his father was dead, his remains identified.

Niepoetter buried his father in Hillcrest Memorial Park, the place locals often call “Coal Mine Hill” because so many tombstones bear the date March 25, 1947. At least 39 of the miners are buried there, said Judy Sutherland, co-owner of the cemetery.

Niepoetter said his father, like those in West Virginia, knew the risks of his job.

“Every miner that I ever knew had a little plaque-like thing on his wall, a little prayer that said he’d rather be killed than trapped,” he said. “We had one, and you accept the danger.”

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