Animated Anthracite: The Knox Mine Disaster Documentary

There is a bone-chilling cold that accompanies the darkness of a mine shaft generations of people in Northeastern Pennsylvania can attest to. These dark tunnels snake below the surface of much of the state like a subway system to a conflicted past. But in one section of coal country, the history of these tunnels holds a much more somber tone. It is here that in January of 1959, greed and arrogance took its toll and the wall of a mineshaft collapsed beneath the pressure of the Susquehanna River, flooding the occupied tunnels in what would become known as the Knox Mine Disaster, an event that led to the death of a dozen miners, and the industry that defined this region.

When filmmaker David Brocca set off to begin his career in Los Angeles, returning home to his native Pennsylvania fifteen years later to produce his first feature length documentary seemed like the most contradictory of things, but that’s exactly what happened when he was introduced to Bob Wolensky, author of “The Knox Mine Disaster: The Final Years of the Northern Anthracite Industry and the Effort to Rebuild a Region”, during a visit to his hometown a few years ago. Despite growing up only minutes away from the disaster site, Brocca, who had been working as a producer for various companies like MTV, Spike and Comedy Central, never thought to source the great cautionary tale of his hometown for a story until Wolensky encouraged him to make a documentary about the rich coal mining history of the area, and the tragedy that was the Knox Mine Disaster.

“I’ve always been a fan of horror films and it’s hard to imagine a more horrifying situation,” Brocca said of what drew him to the Knox Mine Disaster story. “You’re trapped 200 feet underground in an anthracite coal mine as ice laden water rushes in. Not to mention its pitch black, you’re only light source is your headlamp – until the battery runs out – and all known exits are cut off.”

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Ben Mackey illustration of miners in flooded tunnel

Unearthing the Past:

Like any documentary filmmaker tasked with bringing a 50 year old story to life, one of the main challenges Brocca faced was unearthing the artifacts from the event that have been lost over the years.

“Most of the key components didn’t come together overnight, but developed over time,” Brocca said. “I originally started filming the interviews primarily for posterity, due to the age of the surviving miners, never really conceptualizing anything beyond a short form oral history of the event. One interview led to another, which led to archived newspaper articles, photographs, old mine maps and finally the digitization of the original 16mm film footage.”

That original footage, shot by Jack Scanella, the newsman covering the disaster that day, has been given to Dino Everett at the University of Southern California for the delicate process of digitizing the 55 year old reels that were believed lost for years, until a chance encounter with Scanella led Brocca to a storage bin in the basement of a local news station that had been preserving this fragile footage since its initial airing in 1959. It was during this process, while Brocca reviewed the black and white footage of the 150 foot whirlpool that had formed in the Susquehanna River, churning water into the occupied tunnels, and the futile efforts to plug the hole with train cars, that he realized this story needs to go underground, where no camera reached that day, to tell the true horror of what happens when regulations are ignored and innocent men’s lives are put at risk, or lost.

Not wanting to go with the standard, and potentially incredibly expensive, approach of dramatic reenactment to supplement the salvaged footage and interviews from the survivors that day to depict the events that took place in those mine shafts, Brocca sought the talents of Ben Mackey, a comic book artist, who has taken reference photos of the miners and the accounts of the survivors to create illustrations of the events in a charcoal style that is being animated to show the fear and confusion of the trapped miners as they made their eventual escape through a debris riddled air shaft.

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David Brocca, director, The Knox Mine Disaster documentary

Digging Up Funds:

Restoration and animation might be a less expensive option, but they’re certainly not cheap, and like every modern filmmaking project, The Knox Mine Disaster went through the crowdfunding gauntlet, but still needed to find more resources to complete production.

“I haven’t met anyone that enjoys asking for contributions, and for this project, it has gone way beyond online crowdfunding,” Brocca said, speaking of the fundraising exercises that have included the fortunate acceptance into the International Documentary Association the project has been awarded, which grants the production non-profit status and the ability to receive certain historical grants.

“I’ve experienced a crash course in public speaking, hosting benefit events and giving presentations at historical societies and museums,” Brocca said.  “Putting yourself out there can be a scary experience, but I’ve found that, as an independent filmmaker without major backers, there’s no way around it.”

Lessons Lost:

A familiar story in many ways, the Knox Mine Disaster shares similarities with the tales of survival that emerge from the most harrowing of situations, be it plane crash, mine collapse or oil platform explosion. But it is the commonality between events that took place after the hole was plugged and the headline grabbing scandals and economic woes of industry dependent communities of today, that shows not much has changed in 50 years.

“One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered about this documentary is how poignant it is today. We have the advantage of 55 years of hindsight,” Brocca said, “and on one side you can argue how things have changed, yet ironically it’s hard to ignore how much hasn’t. The importance of this story lies in its concentrated look at what happens to a community when its economic engine relies on a single, non-renewable resource, and that resource is suddenly lost.”

Festivals and Beyond:

As the documentary nears completion, Brocca hopes the festival circuit will help them find a distributor, but if they have to do it like they’ve done everything else, David, with his cousin and co-producer Al Brocca, will distribute the movie themselves, focusing at first on parts of the country with similar histories before hopefully finding a larger audience.

“There will definitely be screenings in the region where the disaster occurred in,” Brocca said, “but, I’d also like to have the film shown in other areas of the country where there once was, or still is, active coal mining. I do feel the film has the potential to spill over to a general audience if given the chance. The film showcases survival through adversity, a timeless theme that can instill hope and inspire people to stand up against tyranny and corruption.”

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