Daniel Thomas


Heroic Sacrifice

copright 2003 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Daniel Thomas was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on February 19, 1888. He was one of three children born to Hosiah (Hosie) Thomas and his wife Elizabeth Davis, and was the grandson of immigrant Welsh coal miner John J. Thomas, who arrived in America in 1848. Hosie's other two children were Bertha, born in 1886, and Harry, born in 1891. Like most Welsh families who came to Scranton in the mid to late 1800s, the Thomas' were coal miners, and the sons of John J. Thomas, including Hosie, followed their father into the mines at an early age. As his first-born son, it is likely that Hosie's son Daniel was named after his father's younger brother Daniel, who lost his life in a mine accident in 1888 at the age of sixteen.

As I began to investigate the family of Hosie and Elizabeth Thomas, I noted that the late Wilfred Harris had made a notation on his Thomas Family Tree, that sons Daniel and Harry had both been killed in mining accidents. While I have been unable to discover the circumstances surrounding Harry's death, I have recently discovered the details concerning the tragic death of Daniel Thomas. In addition to indicating that Daniel had been killed in a mining accident, Uncle Wilfred also made the notation "Carnegie Medal" immediately beneath Daniel's name. I began searching the Internet to see if I could find any information on the Carnegie Medal, and soon came across the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission web site, with an explanation of what this award is all about.


The Carnegie Medal, established in 1904, is an award given by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, an organization founded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The award recognizes acts of outstanding civilian heroism throughout the United States and Canada. The requirements for the award are as follows:

A civilian who voluntarily risks his or her own life, knowingly, to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person. The act of rescue must be one in which no full measure of responsibility exists between the rescuer and the rescued. Persons not eligible for awards are: Those whose duties in following their regular vocations require them to perform such acts, unless the rescues are clearly beyond the line of duty; and members of the immediate family, except in cases of outstanding heroism where the rescuer loses his or her life or is severely injured. Members of the armed services and children considered by the Commission to be too young to comprehend the risks involved are also ineligible for consideration.

The web site features a searchable database of all Carnegie Medal recipients since the award's inception, and each individual entry is linked to a short description of the circumstances surrounding that particular individual's act of heroism. The entry for Daniel Thomas reads as follows:

Scranton, Pennsylvania

Daniel Thomas, 29, mine plane runner, died attempting to save Joseph Stepanich, 17, driver, and Joseph Rogne, driver, from suffocation, Scranton, Pennsylvania, December 16, 1916. An explosion occurred in a gangway a third of a mile from the shaft of a coal mine. Stepanich and Rogne were within about 400 feet of the scene of the explosion. Thomas and others, who were nearer to the shaft, started for the shaft. Thomas, who had shortly before been with Stepanich and Rogne, proposed returning for them. The miners with Thomas refused to accompany him and urged him to go on to the shaft, but Thomas turned back alone. His body was later found near the scene of the explosion. Stepanich and Rogne escaped by a course less direct than that taken by Thomas. 17464-1369

In this unfortunate accident, it seems that Daniel died as the result of inhaling gasses, or "black damp," an often fatal byproduct of mining that was the primary cause of affixations, explosions and fires in the mines. News of the accident and the report of Daniel's funeral soon appeared in the local Scranton newspapers, as follows:

Gas Explosion Kills Two Men
Heroic Sacrifice of Daniel Thomas Features Tragedy in Mt. Pleasant Mine

A terrific blast of exploded gas in the Mt. Pleasant mine, West Scranton, at 9 o'clock yesterday morning, followed by the screams of a main in pain, brought instant response from Daniel Thomas, a runner, whose "trip" was passing two hundred feet away. Thomas sprang from the cars and rushed blindly to the rescue.

He found in the main intake passage of the vein, Dunmore, No. 2, a battered and badly burned foreigner, writhing in agony on the floor of the mine. The man died as Thomas bent over him.

When other men of the mine, also having heard the explosion, came cautiously to investigate, they found not only the charred body of the foreigner, but lying across this, the body also of Daniel Thomas, who, in his vain effort to rescue, had perished from the "after damp" which followed the explosion.

Thomas was twenty-nine years of age, married, and with one child. He lived as 525 Decker court, West Scranton.

The name of the foreigner was not known even by the foreman of the mine, Matthew Morris, of Railroad avenue. He said that he would have to look it up in the books Monday morning. He thought he lived in either Johnson's Patch or Old Forge, neither did the undertaking from Jordan & Walsh, who took charge of the body, know the name of the man nor where he came from. Undertaker John Regan, who finally took the body to the house of a brother of the dead man, at 334 Meridian street, likewise did not know anything about the man, but Mr. Regan made an especial trip to the Meridian street house last night and there, from the lips of the man's widow who had been summoned, he learned that the name was Harry Skavinski, and that he came from Old Forge. There are three fatherless children in this family.

The mine officials say that Skavinski was in a part of the mine where he had no business. Foreman Morris even accuses the dead man of having carelessly left a door open in the airway. The chamber where he worked was one hundred feet away. Gas collected in a pocket, he explained, and the man'' naked light set it off.

"The man had been there only a month or so," said foreman Morris. Superintendent Dan Young, of the Scranton Coal company, which operated the colliery, said last night that he was surprised to learn of a gas explosion in this particular mine as it was thought that the workings were free of gas. There have been no explosions there in many years, he said.

The supposition is that in his ignorance of mining customs Skavinski went into the intake and struck the body of gas that had accumulated.

Nothing is known of the heroic sacrifice of Thomas, except that he rushed from his "trip" and afterward was found dead. He gave his life for a man he did not even know, a foreigner whose very name was not known to the men in the mine. Great as this was, it will afford only bitter consolation to his widow and their child, one week from tomorrow, Christmas Day.

The arrangements for his funeral had not been made last night.

The funeral of the man Thomas gave his life for will be held tomorrow morning with burial in Stratford cemetery.

This particular account of the accident is interesting because it fills in many missing details, however the article also seems to contradict itself. At the beginning we are given a dramatic depiction of Daniel Thomas bending over the stricken miner in an attempt to save his life, yet the article concludes by saying, "Nothing is known of the heroic sacrifice of Thomas, except that he rushed from his trip and afterward was found dead." What is clear is that Daniel lost his life because an inexperienced miner was doing something stupid, venturing into an unused portion of the mine, leaving open doors, and heading straight into a pocket of gas with his "naked light" lit.

Another article about the accident soon appeared in the local papers.

Gives Up Life For Another
Daniel Thomas Overcome By Black Damp While Trying to Aid Gas Victim.
Other Burns To Death
Men Were Working in Portion of Mine Where Few Others Were Employed.

Daniel Thomas, a mine runner, of 526 Decker court, employed at the Mount Pleasant colliery in West Scranton, sacrificed his life Saturday to help an unknown, who was in danger. Thomas was working at 9 o'clock Saturday morning when he heard agonizing screams of a fellow employee. He ran in the direction where the screams came. Whether he reached the man then struggling with life is not known.

Some time later, employees found Thomas, a victim of black damp. The man he tried to help was Harry Skavinski of Old Forge. Skavinski was burned to death as the result of the ignition of a pocket of gas.

Both men struggled with death in a section of the mine where few are employed. They were working in the Dunmore, No. 2 vein. Mine Foreman Matthew Morris, of Railroad avenue, declared yesterday that the men were found in a part of the mine where Skavinski had no right to be. Gas accumulated, he said, by the miner having left a door open in the airway interfering with the circulation.

The miner was wearing a naked lamp, and this caused the explosion. Flames enveloped him, and he shouted for help. Without thought for his own safety, Thomas left his work and rushed into the gas-filled chamber.

Thomas leaves his wife and one child. He is also survived by his parents, Mr. And Mrs. Hosie Thomas, of Decker court; one sister, Mrs. Bertha Hill, and one brother, Harry, all of this city. The funeral will be held Tuesday afternoon at 2 o'clock, with interment in Washburn Street cemetery. Services will be conducted at the home by Rev. W.A. Edwards of the Tabernacle Congregational church, and the Rev. T. Tiefion Richards, of the First Welsh Baptist church.

Skavinski leaves a wife and three children. The funeral will be held this morning from his home.

This shorter article tells the story of Daniel's sacrifice in a less-dramatic fashion, and provides additional details about the Thomas family. Parents Hosie and Elizabeth Thomas are named, and we also learn that Daniel's younger brother Harry was still living at the time of the accident. Daniel's widow's name was Elizabeth, and their child, who was less than two years old at the time of her father's death, was Thelma. The third article is a report on Daniel's funeral found in the Scranton Republican, as follows:

Scranton Republican, December 20, 1916

Mine Hero Was Buried Yesterday
Friends and Members of Col. T. D. Lewis Council At Funeral of Daniel Thomas

The funeral of Daniel Thomas, the young man who died a hero's death in the Mt. Pleasant mine of the Scranton Coal company last Saturday morning while attempting to rescue another workman who was burned to death in the explosion of a pocket of gas, was held yesterday afternoon with a short service at the residence, 550 North Decker court.

The funeral procession next moved to the First Welsh Baptist church where the service was continued. Rev. T. Tiefion Richards, the pastor, officiated, assisted by Rev. W.R. Edwards, pastor of the Tabernacle Congregational church. There was a large attendance of relatives, friends and fellow workmen and a delegation from the T.D. Lewis council, No. 115 Junior Order United American Mechanics, of which Mr. Thomas was a member.

Many beautiful floral tributes were sent. These were carried by Thomas Phillips, Stanley Lekrey and John Koleski, from the Mine Fund. The pallbearers were: James Phillips, Oscar Bates, William Madden, Louis Biggs, Gomer Thomas and Thomas Thomas. Interment was made in the Washburn Street cemetery. The members of the T.D. Lewis council had charge of the services at the grave.

Obviously there were members of the community who felt that Daniel's sacrifice deserved special recognition, because the file contains a response to an application sent to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission on Daniel's behalf, by Scranton's congressional representative, John R. Farr. The letter from the commission requesting information about the accident, is dated June 26, 1917, and is addressed to Reverend W.R. Edwards, pastor of the Tabernacle Congregational church, (mentioned above). In responding, Rev. Evans enlisted the help of S.J. Phillips, Inspector of Mines for the 5th Anthracite District, and their responses were communicated to the commission through representative Farr in a letter dated July 16, 1917.

Another letter from Rev. Phillips to Congressman Farr was written on July 23, 1917, and provides an eyewitness account confirming that the only reason Daniel went into the mine was to save his coworkers:

Scranton, Pa., July 23, 1917.

Dear Mr. Farr:-

Relative to our conversation recently concerning the Daniel Thomas case, Joseph Matalonius, Miner #189 at Mt. Pleasant Colliery states that Thomas told him that gas had gone off somewhere and he was going to look for his drivers.

This proves conclusively that he had no other mission when entering the place he did other than trying to save someone.

Very truly yours,

S.J. Phillips

This is an important letter, because it corroborates the information found on the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission's web site, and finally makes clear the circumstances of Daniel's ill-fated rescue attempt. It seems that although Daniel Thomas went back into the mine when he heard Skavinski's screams, his real concern was the safety of his own drivers. Again, Daniel's entry on the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission web site tells us that the two drivers Daniel was trying to rescue, Stepanich and Rogne, ironically, managed to escape the danger on their own. In the final analysis, however, these details are unimportant because, regardless of who he was attempting to rescue, the selfless nature of his sacrifice remains the same, and this is why Daniel Thomas was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal posthumously in 1918. In 1923 Daniel's widow Elizabeth remarried Benjamin Jones, a miner from Wales also living in Hyde Park.

Although daughter Bertha Hill raised a large family in Scranton, we can imagine that in their final years Hosie and Elizabeth Thomas suffered greatly due the loss of their sons. No member of the Thomas family was hit harder by mine tragedies than Hosie Thomas. Having watched his youngest brother Daniel die a horrible death in the mines at age sixteen, Hosie also saw both his sons perish in the mines of Scranton. If Hosie Thomas had indeed named his first-born son after his brother Daniel, it had become a terrible irony. However, because of Daniel Thomas' heroic sacrifice, a permanent record of the Thomas family's sacrifice to Scranton's coal mining industry has been preserved for future generations.

Jeffrey L. Thomas
November 2003

Below: the front and reverse of the Carnegie Medal, awarded posthumously to Daniel Thomas in 1918. (Photographs copyright and courtesy of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission web site)

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