PITTSTON – On Jan. 22, 1959, 5-year-old Robert Lenza wondered why so many people were suddenly running past his house toward the railroad tracks along River Street in Pittston.
"My dad asked someone what all the fuss was about and someone said the river caved in," said Lenza, 59, of Pittston, recalling the day of the Knox Mine Disaster. "He grabbed me and my brother and we ran down to the tracks."
Lenza was one of hundreds of people who attended the Pittston Riverfest Saturday to learn more about the event that claimed the lives of 12 coal miners 53 years ago.
The Greater Pittston Historical Society provided a number of displays, photographs, videos and maps of the area from the past 300 years. The event also featured a variety of food and old world crafts from local artisans and Native Americans of the Oneida, Onondaga, Ojibway and Lakota nations in the Syracuse, N.Y. area.
"I saw water swirling around and ice floating down the river," said Lenza, recalling the huge vortex created as the Susquehanna broke through the thin rock roof of the River Slope Mine and millions of gallons of water and ice poured into the mine.
"You never forget things like that," he said. "I have the utmost respect and admiration for those men to be that brave and do that kind of job."
Phil Voystock, 86, of Freeland shared stories of his 35 years life as a coal miner in the Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton areas.
"I got used to the mines," he said. "The money was good and hours were short," he said, adding that his usual shift was anywhere from three to seven hours a day.
Voystock pointed to a large, blue, squiggly line across his temple. "This is my scar, where a piece of coal fell on my head," he said.
Due to inadequate medical care, Voystock said the coal wasn't cleaned out of the cut before it was stitched up, resulting in the bluish cast. "There's no perfect job, but I was satisfied," he said. "The best feeling was putting your hand out on payday and knowing you've earned it."
At Saturday's Riverfest, two large tractors alternated shuttling people to the site of the cave-in, where local historian and educator Clark Switzer described the events surrounding the disaster.
Walter Bennett, 67, of Scranton said he remembered the day like it was yesterday. He was in eighth grade at the time and rushed to the scene with his parents when they heard the news.
"We went up on a hill and heard the roaring of the water," he said. "There were so many spotlights from the houses down there. It looked like a space launch."