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Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster

by Melissa Fay Greene

On Oct. 23, 1958, the floors hit the ceilings of the Number 2 coal mine in Springhill, Nova Scotia, in three massive “bumps.” Above ground it felt like an earthquake, and registered as such on the seismograph in Halifax 75 miles away. In Springhill itself, the silence that followed hung like doom over the townsfolk. Everyone knew that the 174 men on the afternoon shift were in trouble. Families and rescuers rushed to the pithead, and soon survivors – and those less lucky – began to be brought out. Unknown to anyone topside, two isolated groups of men still lived, trapped deep in the impenetrable darkness of the earth.

The first half of Melissa Fay Greene’s Last Man Out deals deftly, albeit predictably, with the efforts that led to the trapped men’s rescue nine days later. In crisp, tight chapters Greene cuts between these men, their wives and children, and the rescuers risking their lives to dig them out. She describes the dynamics between members of the imprisoned groups without romanticizing them and refuses to flinch even when detailing one man’s prolonged death agonies. The horror of their situation becomes as palpable as the urine they drink, and the word “darkness” begins to feel like a suffocating stench.

But Last Man Out is more than an extended real-life drama. An aide to the governor of Georgia capitalized on the intense publicity surrounding the miners’ narrow escape by inviting the survivors south to recuperate at state expense. The bemused miners found themselves pawns in a fight to lure Florida tourist dollars to the State of Georgia, and readers are treated to a fascinating snapshot of segregation teetering on the verge of collapse.

Greene also shows how media coverage of the disaster, which was one of the first to be covered on live television, took on a bizarre life of its own. In the rush to find an identifiable hero, the accolades and honours dished out were unevenly distributed. With unobtrusive compassion, Greene resists hyperbole to describe real people who survived an impossible situation.