An Unsung Canary

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Long ago, miners and other underground workers took canaries with them into the bowels of the earth – not as reminders of the beauty of the land above nor for the cheerfulness of their songs, but as a bellwether. As long as the air in the mines and tunnels was plentiful and free of harmful gases, these little creatures would sing and hop around in their cages, assuring the underground workers that they were safe.

But canaries are sensitive creatures – and as soon as the air in these underground crevices turned deadly, the birds were the first to succumb. A lifeless canary at the bottom of the cage meant that an immediate evacuation was necessary to avoid fatal consequences. Unwittingly, perhaps unwillingly, canaries gave their lives to save others.

Sometimes, however, even the canaries could not give warning. In July of 1916, 11 workmen died in a water-intake tunnel they were digging 50 feet below Lake Erie when they hit a pocket of natural gas, triggering an explosion. After ten would-be rescuers were overcome by gas as they entered the pressurized tunnel, others refused to venture into the disaster zone. No one knew if there were survivors; no one was willing to risk their lives to find out.

Except Garret Morgan. An African-American inventor from Cleveland Ohio, Morgan and his brother were summoned to the tunnel. Someone had heard of a remarkable invention of Morgan’s that might help. Garret Morgan was asked to test this invention in a real-life scenario.

Each wearing one of the “contraptions” – a hood fashioned to protect the eyes from smoke and featuring a series of air tubes that hung near the ground to draw clean air beneath the rising smoke – Morgan, his brother, and two additional volunteers ventured into the gas-polluted tunnel to find anyone who had escaped the devastation.

Because of their bravery and their confidence in Garret Morgan’s invention, 2 men were pulled from the rubble, alive, and the bodies of four others were returned to their families before the U.S. Bureau of Mines called a halt to the rescue-and-recovery efforts because of the continuing danger.

No unwitting or unwilling bellwether – Garret Morgan was a brave and confident hero who risked his life that day to save others.

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