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‘Secrets in the Mist’

Book on Brown’s Island remembers victims of explosion 50 years ago

SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT— Mary Zwierzchowski, assistant reference librarian at the Mary H. Weir Public Library where she’s worked for 32 years, holds a copy of the newly released “Secrets in the Mist: The History of Brown’s Island, Weirton, WV.” She collaborated with former Weirton resident Jane Kraina on research and interviews to write the book that comes during the 50th anniversary year of the Brown’s Island coke plant explosion on Dec. 15, 1972, in which 19 men died and as many as 40 to 60 were seriously injured. -- Janice Kiaski

WEIRTON — Charles Bowers, Howard Bray, James Brown, Paul Byrne, Michael Crowley, Edward “Dick” Arthurs, Kenny Gaines, Kenneth Harris, William Kliner, Andy Guz, Arthur McCort, Samuel Morgart, Russell Ober, Michael Repko, Lou Sommers, Albert Tuttle, James Tuttle, John Toms and David Van Sickle.

Those are the alphabetically listed names of the 19 men whose lives were lost in the Brown’s Island coke plant explosion on Dec. 15, 1972.

“You are not forgotten” notes the “In Memory Of” page of the newly released “Secrets in the Mist: The History of Brown’s Island, Weirton, WV” written by Jane Kraina of Silver Springs, Md., formerly of Weirton, and Mary Zwierzchowski of Weirton.

The two authors will be on hand for a special book-kickoff presentation on April 2 at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center, located at 3149 Main St., Weirton. It’s open to the public, begins at 1:30 p.m. and will be followed by a time of light refreshments.

Signed copies of the book will be available for purchase, and attendees can expect the program to include photographs and a look at some materials, according to Kraina, lead writer.

“One special thing we are having at the presentation is the presence of about 15 people who have their stories in the book,” Kraina explained. “Several are coming who lost a family member.”

The book comes in the 50th anniversary year of the tragic explosion at the small island in the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia, north of Weirton’s Half Moon Industrial Park — an accident that also left “40 to 60 people seriously injured.”

Edited by Dwight McUmar, the book is dedicated “to the hundreds of workers whose labor both skilled and unskilled built the coke plant at Brown’s Island, in connection with Weirton Steel Corp. and Koppers Co.”

The book jacket notes the explosion “shook the construction site of a state-of-the-art coking facility being built for Weirton Steel. Residents on both sides of the river felt the reverberations.”

After talking to more than a hundred people, Kraina and Zwierzchowski, who worked together in the reference section of the Mary H. Weir Public Library in Weirton, “found intriguing accounts from a variety of workers on the island that fateful misty day, and heroes who gave their own lives while helping to retrieve their fellow laborers.”

More than half of the workers who died were young, leaving small children behind, it notes.

While the timing of the book’s release is more coincidental than planned, the intent to write it was purpose-driven from the get-go.

“I had become interested in Brown’s Island in the mid-1980s,” Kraina wrote from Maryland in responding to e-mailed questions. “Before the Internet proliferated, knowing what was in the library’s books on local history helped to answer questions. I would read them when we weren’t too busy. Mary Shakley Ferguson’s book, ‘History of Holliday’s Cove,’ contained stories about the Brown family, and I found the island intriguing,” she continued.

“In 1989, I published my first article in Goldenseal Magazine. The story was about Brown’s Island, and I titled it, ‘In Time and the River,’ and the theme centered around how the history of the island was a reflection of our country’s history. From that time on, I always had interest in the continuing saga of the island,” she commented. Goldenseal is a quarterly magazine devoted to West Virginia traditional life, published by the state of West Virginia, Department of Arts, Culture and History.

In 2017, a visitor to the library would ignite the flame to write what today is “Secrets in the Mist.”

“Bob Brandt walked in the library and asked if we had anything on the island,” Kraina recalled. “I pulled what we had out of the files and let him look things over. As I did, a light bulb went on in my head, and I thought, there’s still interest in Brown’s Island. I soon had the idea of writing a book,” Kraina said.

Zwierzchowski is the assistant reference librarian at the Mary H. Weir Public Library where she’s worked for 32 years. “I enjoy interacting with the people who come in and have questions, and I like digging for answers to get the answer to those questions,” she said during an interview Tuesday.

That quality worked to her advantage in pursuit of information on Brown’s Island.

“I have the town’s history right here,” she motioned with her hands of her work surroundings.

All Zwierzchowski knew initially about Brown’s Island, however, was that a deadly explosion had occurred there decades ago.

That would soon, change, though, and the “vertical file” of information at the library would swell.

Zwierzchowski recalled how Brandt’s visit sparked the project.

“He said I am looking for information on the explosion,” she said, remembering that he and Kraina talked at length that day. “After he left, Jane said, ‘We need to do a book on that island and the explosion. People really need to know about that. I’m going to do it with or without you. Do you want to help me?'” Zwierzchowski said of how the conversation went. “And I said, ‘Yes,’ before I even knew what I’d said. I was committed,” she chuckled.

“He was there the day that it happened,” Zwierzchowski said of Brandt’s interest. “He had worked on the island a few years prior to the building of the plant. He saw the island in two ways. First, he saw the island as a beautiful place where nothing of much activity was going on and nature sort of owned the island — the birds, the animals, the beautiful flowers. He saw the beauty of the island, and he became very attached to it, and he often went looking for Indian artifacts and has quite a collection,” she said.

The two women have a working history.

“We had worked together on a previous story — “Death of a Gypsy King,” also done for Goldenseal.

With the book decision a go, the two frequently talked about the Brown’s Island explosion.

“We agreed the story had been forgotten,” Kraina said. “We started doing research at that time, and the digging continued for five years. In 2019, we started to stall, especially in finding people who had been on the island the day of the explosion or who lost family members in the blast.”

Brandt suggested a story in the newspaper, which ran in March 2019 in the Valley Life section of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. It generated interest.

“People began calling us, and this added the human dimension to the story,” Kraina said. “In general, we talked to about 150 people, if not more. Not everybody had a story long enough to run as a separate piece, but all the details they gave were helpful.”

Like Kraina, Zwierzchowski enjoyed writing and researching history.

“I grew up in the rural part of Brooke County near the old mining town of Cliftonville, which became the scene of the very first article that I had published,” Zwierzchowski said. “An event occurred there, it was a mine war during 1922, during the labor problems between the miners and the coal barons, and that was published in Goldenseal magazine, my very first, and I was inspired by the place where I lived.

The Brown’s Island vertical file that Brandt looked at included a variety of newspaper articles. “I was using microfilm from the newspaper. We have the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times on microfilm, and I knew exactly what date to go to, so anything I could find newspaper-wise related to that, all of it was helpful in doing the book,” Zwierzchowski said.

Contacts were often cold calls when it came to interviewing family members of victims or others.

“If we found a phone number listed for them, we just made a lot of cold contacts or maybe somebody would know somebody and direct us in that direction or say I know a guy who was there that day, that sort of thing. We had to search,” she said.

Zwierzchowski said she did six interviews “compared to Jane, who did a hundred. Jane would call anybody she knew connected.”

Asked to share a bit about who she interviewed and what kind of stories she was told, Zwierzchowski said, “My first interview is hard to remember how it came about, but I contacted the sister of one of the victims who died, and I was able to get a hold of her. That was a phone interview, my first one, and she told the story of what the family felt that day.

“This book brings out a lot about the things that you don’t read in the newspaper, the humanity of it, the pain they were going through, and she talked about her family and the waiting that day for hours to find out what had happened to her brother.”

Such stories were hard to hear, she agreed, but helpful, too, in the end.

“I felt that I was bringing out the really human side of things, not just the statistics that 19 people had died. I gave them faces. I gave them a personality. I expressed whatever pain the family felt and some of the scenes are graphic, too, of what happened, the way they were dismembered,” she said.

“I had a way of wanting to name everything,” she said of the finished interview accounts. For Richard Ferguson’s memories, for example, it was titled “The Gray Dust.” The day of the explosion, the retired Brooke County Sheriff was 25 and on his first day on the job as a certified journeyman electrician.

“It doesn’t tell you anything until you read it,” Zwierzchowski said.

“Everybody he saw, they were covered with gray dust,” she said.

Zwierzchowski said two people have told her they had to stop reading the book after a few chapters, commenting that it was so sad.

“It was a sad thing.”

It’s also disappointing, she adds, that research turned up no public ceremonies acknowledging the loss. In the book’s epilogue, Pam Makricosta, the library’s Literacy and Lifelong Learning coordinator who reviewed rewrites, noted, “We look forward to the day when a permanent memorial will be created to list the names of the 19 men who perished in the 1972 explosion. Their ultimate sacrifice needs to be remembered, lest they be forgotten.”

Zwierzchowski said Kraina put the stories in a certain order, and the two worked more apart on the project than together.

“We did this mostly electronically, communicated on the phone or the Internet, by e-mail. We seldom got together face-to-face, maybe five or six times we may have met in the whole four or five years we were working on this. Sometimes it was difficult, but Jane did most of the organizing. She would tell me what she was doing, and I was trusting what she was doing. Jane would give me assignments — ‘Mary, I need something on the ’36 flood,’ and I had it all on the microfilm. I put that together. Or the ’72 flood. I need a short bio or profile on a certain individual who is dead, Mike Starvaggi. He owned the island. Or Cyrus Ferguson, he owned the island. I did that sort of thing,” Zwierzchowski explained.

She also developed a story in the book called “The Incredible Journey of Sarah Kinney Lewis.”

“She is in nobody’s history book. That story is not Weirton’s history. It’s something that came to town with a man who came from Canada,” Zwierzchowski explained. “He was doing a book on Sarah’s Journey, and he asked me if I had anything on this person, and I didn’t. It turns out she was born on Brown’s Island in 1790, and she was a slave, and it was her story. Sarah’s journey,” she said, noting Sarah had two children, Mary and Henry, and as a runaway slave made her way to Canada.

While the book commemorates the 19 men who died 50 years ago, it also offers a broader story of the island. The back cover notes “the area within 20 miles of the island held ancient artifacts, some more than 16,000 years old. Carnegie Mellon Institute of Technology carbon dated artifacts from a hearth on the island at 1200 A.D. The authors trace the history of the island in the 1800s and 1900s. Through diaries and books about the agricultural development of the island, they bring the island to life as it transforms from a slave-owning area to independent farmers.

“As America entered the industrial era, entrepreneurs saw the island’s possibilities. After the growth of Weirton Steel due to massive production related to World War II, the company purchased the island with the ideas of storage, dredging and expansion of its coke production. The cause of the accident drew much speculation, and theories are offered, including the most likely scenario.”

“The title came to me as I was driving one day,” Kraina explained. “It was probably last summer sometime. I asked Dennis Jones if he could shoot me a picture of mist coming up off the island. He took it last October,” she said of Jones, an accomplished photographer and former executive director of the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center. “He also sent me pictures of eagles. An eagle circled the island before the explosion, and we saw one the day we were on the island,” she said, referring to a 2019 visit to the island. “The mist was mentioned the day of the explosion and in the Lewis and Clark story,” she added.

Help with the design cover came from Kraina’s grandson Cy Blair, who had taken graphic arts classes in high school.

Asked if she found any photographs during the research period, Kraina responded, “One of the electricians took pictures at Brown’s Island in the fall of 1972 and in January 1973. He will be bringing them to the presentation. Some of them are in the book.”

A picture of a house on the island is in the book along with an older map. “Dennis Jones took pictures when we toured the island in 2019,” Kraina said.

“I plan on bringing some materials to the presentation.”

The paperback book is $15 and available at the Mary H. Weir Public Library, Prime Books on Pennsylvania Avenue in Weirton, at the Visitor Center of Historic Fort Steuben in Steubenville, Sweet Temptations and the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center. It also is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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