MAC: Mines and Communities

Underground Blast Kills 5 Kentucky Miners

Published by MAC on 2006-05-21

Underground Blast Kills 5 Kentucky Miners

By SAMIRA JAFARI, Associated Press Writer

21st May 2006

HOLMES MILL, Ky. (AP) - An underground explosion in an eastern Kentucky coal mine killed five miners early Saturday, while a sixth miner walked away from the blast that sprayed an office building with rock and mud 100 yards outside the tunnel's entrance, Gov. Ernie Fletcher said. The cause of the blast at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County was not immediately known. But Fletcher, who quickly flew to the scene, said preliminary evidence suggested methane may have leaked from a sealed-off portion of the mine, mixed with oxygen and then something caused it to ignite.

It was the deadliest mining incident in Kentucky since 1989, when 10 miners died in a western Kentucky mine blast, state officials said. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said that the five deaths Saturday raised the national death toll from coal mining accidents to 31 this year, with 10 of the deaths in Kentucky.

The miners, who were part of a maintenance shift on duty when the blast occurred about 1 a.m. EDT, were found about 3,000 feet into the mine, said Ray McKinney, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety and health. The governor said some of the dead miners had donned breathing devices after the explosion and tried to climb to safety. Federal investigators said four of the victims were found close together but could not confirm whether they had used breathing devices.

The only survivor, Paul Ledford, was closer to the mine's exit than his co-workers who were killed, Fletcher said. He was about 15 feet from the mine's exit when he came across rescuers on their way in to search, officials said.

Ledford was treated at Lonesome Pine Hospital in Big Stone Gap, Va., and released.

Jeff Ledford said his brother sustained burns to his face and chest and has blisters.

``He's destroyed,'' said Jeff Ledford, added it was not clear how much his brother remembered about the explosion. ``I've had to holler at him because he's staring off to space.''

The governor said he had contacted the families of the killed workers. ``They want answers - how, why, what caused it - that will help them deal with it a little more,'' Fletcher said.

Relatives of the miners had gathered before dawn at the nearby Cloverfork Missionary Baptist Church to await word about their loved ones. State and federal mine officials informed the family members of the deaths, said Mike Blair, the church's pastor.

``There's just a lot of heartbroken people,'' he said.

Authorities identified the victims as Amon Brock, 51, of Closplint; Jimmy D. Lee, 33, of Wallins Creek; Roy Middleton, 35, of Evarts; George William Petra, 49, of Kenvir; and Paris Thomas Jr., 53, also of Evarts.

Coroner Philip Bianchi said autopsy results could be available as early as Sunday night.

Mary Middleton said her husband had been working in the mines since he was 18.

``He thought about coming out of the mines but we have two kids,'' she said. ``It was a job to make a living.''

Denise Bean, stepdaughter of Brock, said he came from a family of miners. ``Mining is all he's ever done,'' she said. ``It was his life.''

It was not clear how many workers were on duty when the blast occurred, but officials said no production was going on at the time.

The underground mine, operated by Kentucky Darby LLC, is located about 250 miles southeast of Louisville in a mountainous area near the Virginia border. A man who answered the phone at a Kentucky Darby office declined to comment Saturday, saying the company was too busy. Later, a man identifying himself as a foreman also declined comment.

Since Kentucky Darby took over as operator in May 2001, there had been 10 injuries and no deaths at the mine until Saturday's explosion, according to statistics on MSHA's Web site.

The mine, which employed 34 people and averaged about 220,000 tons of coal per year, goes about 11,300 feet deep. MSHA had been in the process of doing a regular inspection of the mine.

The last state inspection performed at the Kentucky Darby mine was on April 28, Fletcher said. He said two safety violations were discovered: A battery charger was not properly ventilated and a high-voltage cable was not guarded.

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts urged state and federal mine officials to ``redouble their inspection and enforcement activities, starting now.''

``This tragedy only compounds what has already been a horrific year in America's coal mines,'' Roberts said in a statement. According to a 2004 report by the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, there were 608 coal mines in the state, including 296 underground mines.

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