The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster
In 1930, as the United States was grappling with the effects of the Great Depression, construction began on the Hawks Nest Tunnel, a three-mile-long excavation through Gauley Mountain in West Virginia. The purpose of the tunnel was to provide water from the New River to a power station in Gauley Bridge, W.V. Most of the tunnel was excavated by drilling and blasting through sandstone, which has a high silica content. Workers were provided little personal protective equipment, and eyewitnesses reported that wet drilling methods were used only when inspectors visited the site. The work led to the deaths of hundreds of workers from silicosis. A recent article published on has drawn new attention to the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. Information from that article and other sources appears below.
From “Hawks Nest Disaster” by Nayab Sultan in Tunnels and Tunneling International:
“The combination of large work crews drilling and blasting underground in confined spaces, lack of dust suppression, presence of gas fumes, inadequate ventilation and no personal respiratory equipment were all significant contributory factors of high levels of exposure. It is thought that within two years of the initial groundbreaking in April 1930 workers started to succumb to the effects of an incurable disease of the lungs—acute silicosis.”

Environmental Health Insights
: “
A Brief Review of Silicosis in the United States
” (May 2010). NPR: “
Before Black Lung, the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds
” (January 2019).
Tunnels and Tunneling International
: “
Hawks Nest Disaster
” (July 2016).

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In August, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that a student intern and a researcher at Oak Ridge Associated Universities had devised an experiment to replicate the McCluskey incident in order to study the effects of radiation on the body. By irradiating vials of their own blood for different lengths of time, the researchers hope to generate data that clinicians and first responders can refer to following an exposure incident.

Read more from the News Sentinel.