An American hero | Only in Oklahoma

Only in Oklahoma: An American hero

Rufino Rodrigues received a Carnegie Hero bronze medal for saving the lives of at least 150 coal miners during a 1912 mine fire in Coal County.

When Rufino Rodrigues discovered the coal mine where he was working was on fire, his first thought was to warn the other miners, most of whom were working on lower levels.

“I’ll never see you alive again,” a fellow miner told the young Mexican native as he prepared to issue the warning.

The danger didn’t stop Rodrigues from running a mile and a half through several levels of the mine at Lehigh in Coal County to sound the alarm and to lead to safety up to 250 other miners who were not aware of the fire.

Rodrigues carried a bucket of water to soak his wool shirt that he used to cover his face to block the fumes from the burning coal. When he finished his run, he was dazed from smoke inhalation and had to be carried out of the mine by a rescue squad.

He was taken to a hospital at McAlester for a couple of days. But he saved at least 150 miners. The number is indistinct because newspaper reports after the fire credited him with saving from 241 to 259.

People are also reading…

The citation that accompanied a Carnegie Hero medal he was given set the number he saved at 150 but noted other claims were greater. The trouble started on Feb. 22, 1912, when a workman accidentally dropped a lighted lamp into a barrel of oil in the main shaft of the mine.

The oil blazed, and rather than try to put out the fire, the workman dropped the barrel to the bottom of the mine shaft — and fled. Rodrigues and another miner who were among a group working 250 feet below the surface soon smelled the smoke fumes that began seeping throughout the mine.

Rodrigues told his friend that he was going to warn the others. That’s when the friend shook Rodrigues’ hand and warned that he would die in the attempt.

“That was at 10:30 in the morning and he did see me alive again, but not until 6:30 that night,” Rodrigues told a World reporter in 1943. “There were 18 lifts in the shaft and I went to each one to warn the workers and help them out.”

Meanwhile, in the area where Rodrigues was, all the other miners jumped on a hoist and rushed to the surface.

“But I couldn’t help nine of them. They smothered to death,” he added.

Among those he rescued was his 14-year-old brother. Rodrigues received the bronze Carnegie medal about a year later along with $1,000 from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

He used the money to buy a three-room house in Lehigh. The Carnegie fund, established in 1904 by Andrew Carnegie, recognizes acts of heroism but it isn’t given often. Only 85 Oklahomans received the medal during the 20th century.

Rodrigues lost the house during the Great Depression because he couldn’t pay the taxes on it, moved to Nevada to work in gold mines and returned to Tulsa in 1935 and worked as a mechanical engineer.

When war clouds were forming before World War II, Rodrigues was forced to register as an alien along with other foreign-born residents. He was born in Mexico but had lived in the U.S. since he was a month old.

“I have lived in the United States 50 years,” he told a reporter. “I have raised two sons and two daughters. I have educated them in American ways. And in my heart I am just as good an American as anyone in this country.”

Rodrigues, who died at the age of 90 in 1980, finally became an American citizen on July 8, 1943 — a milestone he considered his second great honor in this country.

Like this column? Read all the columns in the Only in Oklahoma series from the Tulsa World Archive.

Only in Oklahoma is a series from the Tulsa World Archive that was written by former Tulsa World Managing Editor Gene Curtis during the Oklahoma Centennial in 2007. The columns told interesting stories from the history of the country’s 46th state. The Tulsa World Archive is home to more than 2.3 million stories, 1.5 million photographs and 55,000 videos. Tulsa World subscribers have full access to all the content in the archive. Not a subscriber? We have a digital subscription special offer of $1 for three months for a limited time at

The Tulsa World newsroom is committed to covering this community with curiosity, tenacity and depth. Our passion for telling the story of Tulsa remains unwavering. Because your story is our story. Thank you to our subscribers who support local journalism. Join them with limited-time offers at