Story of Bud Towns shared during Celebration of Love & Unity

Published 3:36 pm Friday, March 1, 2024

Main Street Pineville and Bethel Baptist Church held a community service to celebrate love and unity in honor of Black History Month last Saturday, February 24, at the Bell Theater.

The event included guest speakers, including Pastor Buffy Dunnaville from White Memorial AME Zion Church in Middlesboro and Elder Ricky Washington from First Baptist Church in Pineville, as well as music by Sister Tammie Rogers and Rev. Jake Ravizee.

The event was organized by Niesha Semone Cloud of Bethel Baptist Church. Bethel is a historically black church in Pineville that had been closed for several years. Cloud has been leading the effort to restore the building and bring the church back to life.

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The theater also showed the movie Lean on Me following the program, which had a $5 admission with all proceeds going to the church.

Among the highlights of Saturday’s program was a presentation by Dr. Nick Fugate sharing the heroic story of Albert Israel “Bud” Towns and the Miracle in Room Five during the 1945 Fourmile Mine explosion. Fugate shared the account of events written by Dr. James S. Golden.

At 7:45 a.m. on December 26, 1945, there was a great thump in the ground, and a smoke ring rose into the sky. The Kentucky Straight Creek Belva #1 Mine exploded with 31 men trapped inside.

Rescuers in gas masks fought through a series of explosions and flames and found two charred bodies, but the heat prevented them from going further inside. There were 29 men still trapped inside, and their grieving families gathered near the one entrance and assumed they were all dead.

Inside the mine, Bud Towns, a black miner, and Joe Hatfield were working with two others in a corridor known as Five Left. Towns had been in a Kettle Island mine explosion in 1929 that killed six men. He had been buried alive and later rescued, so he knew about mine explosions, and he took charge. Towns led the others out into the main shaft to try and get out, but they couldn’t get through the flames, smoke, and continuing explosions.

The shaking earth released springs of groundwater into the mine, and the cold water was knee-deep. Towns led the men further back into the mine, and they added more to the group on the way. There were nine altogether, and Bud drew arrows on the slate walls to guide rescuers as he led them to a side room, Room Five. They hung rags over the room entrance to keep out the smoke and methane.

Towns collected a few sandwiches from outside the room and brought them inside. He made the miners lie down together for warmth and wouldn’t let them exert themselves trying to get out. Towns prayed, and a tiny crack in the wall was found with a trickle of fresh air coming in. The men gathered around it, and they all felt that trickle of air was a miracle, an answer to prayer.

Bud rationed the food and water out to the other men and said it was more important for them to live than him. As the men began to lose hope, Towns continued to pray and sing songs. He quoted scripture from Psalms and preached sermons on faith to them.

Rescuers finally reached Room Five after 52 hours. They saw no definite signs of life in the men. Albert Bennet, age 64 and the oldest man in the mines died on the way to the surface. The other eight men were taken to Pineville Hospital.

Bud Towns, Tom McQueen, McKinley Leath, Evan Philpot, Huey Miller, Joe Hatfield, Charles Lingar and Bill Brandstutter.

That left 20 men trapped further back in the mine. A rescue team of 300 fought through 24 explosions as the fires grew into an inferno before giving up. The mine was sealed in January and reopened 34 months later, with 15 bodies brought out on October 18 and the other five on October 20 and 21 from the very end of the shaft.

The eight survivors were put in a big men’s ward at Pineville Hospital. Dr. Golden was a beginning medical student home for the holidays and reported that the men were nearly dead from hypothermia, dehydration and respiratory failure.

In 1945, the hospitals were segregated, and it had been found that Towns was put into the room with the white miners. A gurney was brought in to remove him, but the others realized what was happening. All but Tom McQueen, who was unconscious, rose up with hoarse shouts to leave Bud alone.

They asked for Towns to be left where they could see him. They said he was the best man there and had saved their lives.

McQueen died two days later and never regained consciousness after leaving Room Five. Seven survivors were listed of the 31, but there were actually only six. It was the black miner, Bud Towns, who gave his life so that his white brothers might live.

“Bud Towns’ name should never be forgotten,” Golden wrote. “He must not remain the missing man, the forgotten man for the miracle at Fourmile.”

Albert Israel “Bud” Town died March 19, 1946, of bronchial pneumonia and carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 52 years old.

Dr. Fugate added that Pineville Hospital was integrated from then on, and it is probable that Towns saved numerous other lives.

“He likely aided his neighbors, friends and family who might not have received the same level of care if they had been admitted to a segregated ward,” he said. “Pineville Hospital was among the first integrated hospitals in the state, if not the first, setting a precedent two decades before the civil rights movement gained momentum.

“It is my opinion that Bud Towns improved the lives of many and likely saved the lives of hundreds. I have to agree with Dr. Golden in saying that his name should never be forgotten.”

Pineville Community Health Center owner Michael Frey announced that a memorial for Towns will be installed in the loft overlooking the hospital’s lobby this spring. He also said the hospital would be donating $10,000 to Bethel Baptist Church, where Towns was a member.