Saturday, March 14, 2009

Frank Leach & the Leewood Fire: A Piece of My Family's History

My father grew up in the coal mining community of Cabin Creek, West Virginia. I bought him the book A Pictorial History of Cabin Creek at Christmas. In it, he found a story involving our family. I found it very touching, as it involves my great-grandfather (dad's grandfather) and my great-uncle.

"The beginning of the year 1936 would bring to the town of Leewood, much sadness and destruction. On the night of January 1st the Cabin Creek Consolidated Coal company store at Leewood caught fire and was soon completely engulfed in flames and destroyed. The company suffered between $15,000 and $20,000 in damages, but even greater was the loss of human life. Three of Leewoods citizens perished in the blaze. The following is taken in part from articles that appeared in the Charleston Gazette in January 1936:

While fighting a fire that was believed caused by a defective flue which completely destroyed the Leewood store of the Cabin Creek Consolidated Coal Co. yesterday, Dennis Matthews, about 33, an employee of the company was burned to death.

Matthews, who had volunteered to fight the blaze was trapped in the building and was overcome by smoke. His charred body was recovered at daylight, the fire having started a few hours after midnight.

Gamer Williams, store manager, said smoke had apparently overcome Matthews while he was carrying water from the wash room to the blaze. A wall of flames prevented volunteer fireman from going to Matthews' aid, observers said. He had apparently gone into the building to fight the fire before it gained much headway and had apparently thought he was not in much danger.

On the following morning two additional bodies were recovered from the charred remains of the store building. The bones were all that was left of the bodies of Frank Leech, age 34 and Ernest Whitt, age 33, both of Leewood. The body of Dennis Matthews, whom they tried to save, was discovered soon after the fire.

Lying in one small pile of bones was an octagon shaped watch and an automobile key on a small steel string which was identified by W.A. Leech as the property of his son, Frank, who had left his automobile about 100 feet from the store when he and Whitt went to help fight the flames. Whitt's bones were found about five feet from those of Leech and about the same distance from the body of Matthews.

Company officials said the bodies of Leech and Whitt were found under a huge pile of salt which it was believed had fallen on them and knocked them unconscious. Whitt and Leech had been missing, but owing to reports they had left with another man in his automobile going to Charleston delayed the search for their remains.

T. L. Turner, an employee of the store said he observed both Whitt and Leech holding onto Mrs. Matthews about 100 yards from the fire, while her volunteer­ fireman - husband was inside the burning building. When Matthews began yelling for help the two released their hold on Mrs. Matthews and ran into the store in an attempt to rescue him. Neither of them returned.

The shadow of the tragedy that was not understood at the time appeared at the North-South Football game at Laidley Field that afternoon when a little old man dressed in overalls and wearing a miner's cap approached the press box. He sought out the announcer at the press box and meekly pleaded; "See if he's here, say over that speaker for him to come home if he is here. The store burned down last night and Mom and I think he might be burned up in it. They told us around home not to worry he might be here at the ballgame". The announcer had to have the little old man repeat his plea and he was then unable to make any meaning out of it as he had not heard that there had been any store fire. The announcer explained that he was only there temporary and that permission must be given by the game committee or James Duggan before he could make any such announcement over the speaker.

About 15 minutes later the little old man returned and stated that he had been unable to find the person in charge that he had been sent to locate. "Please mister", he pleaded, "ask for him, Mom's worried to death." The announcer, after explaining again that he could not make such an announcement without permission, asked "who is it you are looking for?" "He's my boy," the little man said. "My name's Leech, I want you to ask for Frank Leech, to come here or to go home. "

Virgil Frizzell, the chief announcer then appeared and over the loud speaker he asked Frank Leech, if present to come to the press box. There was no response.

The old man returned sorrowfully to his home. There he learned that the young man had gone into the burning building the night before in a heroic effort to save the life of a friend.

His boy, Frank Leech was dead."

The little old man in the miner's cap was my great-grandfather, William Allen Leach (I think it is misspelled in the story), and his son, Frank, my great-uncle. I never knew them and had never heard this story. It just broke my heart hearing my dad read it to me over the phone, the image of my great-grandfather begging the announcers for help in locating his boy. I am sure he and my great-grandmother were devastated at the loss of their son, but I hope it gave them some comfort to know he died trying to save someone else.

From the book: A Pictorial History of Cabin Creek, by Dale Payne 2008

1 comment:

  1. That is an incredibly sad story : (

    In another blog I read, this guy's father was in this horrible famous fire when he was three. Very sad story as well.

    But I don't know. It's so sad about your great grandfather at the baseball desperate to find your great-uncle. I can imagine how scared he was. I wish he had gotten good news instead of bad.