Digital Exclusive: Knox Mine Disaster witness dies at 101 years

Digital Exclusive

WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) – Luzerne County said goodbye to a local hero last weekend. William “Bill” Hastie, the last living employee of the Knox Coal Company died at 101 years old. He was known for helping rescue miners stuck in the River Slope Mine in Jenkins Township after the walls of the mine caved in. Eyewitness News spoke with Hastie in over the years about terrifying January day, now 61 years ago.

“A break in the surface occurred, and it was right under the river!” Hastie said in a 2019 interview.

Robert Wolensky is an adjunct professor of history at King’s College and a long-time friend of Hastie’s. He was deeply saddened and shocked when he heard the news of Hastie’s death – he tells me he had just video chatted with his old friend last week.

“He was not that responsive, but he knew who were were. He was talking to us and seemed to know what we were talking about. It was just a very much surprise to get the call on Saturday morning,” Wolensky said.

Wolensky says Hastie’s actions during the Knox Mine Disaster were nothing shot of heroic. Hastie was off duty near the mine when it collapsed under the river. He came across the first man to escape and immediately sprang into action.

“Before anyone could stop me I climbed up the the incline to the entrance to the River Slope and I went down as far as I could,” Hastie said in a 2014 interview.

“And then he immediately called for rope. “Get rope! Get rope!” He yelled around to people up above because there’s cliffs up above and they sent down this cables and they began lifting the men out of the Eagle Air shaft,” Wolensky said.

12 miners died that day, but Hastie’s quick thinking saved many more from that deadly fate – leading to the rescue of 69 people. Hastie spent the rest of his life dedicated to educating people about the disaster and mining history. He co-authored a book, titled “Anthracite Labor Wars” with Wolensky.

“He was the old fashioned scholar mine worker. A very rare person,” Wolensky said.

Wolensky remembers Hastie as being unselfish with his knowledge.

“He helped not just me but dozens upon dozens,” Wolensky said.

In a statement, Mayor George Brown of Wilkes-Barre said “I am saddened to learn of Mr. Hastie’s passing, but I am thankful to have had the honor of celebrating his 101st birthday. He will be remembered as a hero for his service during World War II and then for aiding in the rescue of 69 miners during the Knox Mine Disaster. He contributed his knowledge of the local mining industry throughout his life and preserved the memory of the Knox Mine Disaster for generations to come. I extend my condolences to his family and friends as they honor his life and legacy.”

Mayor Brown proclaimed May 28th 2020, Bill Hastie’s 101st birthday, as Bill Hastie Day.

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