5 Killed in Kentucky Mine Explosion

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Five miners were killed in an underground explosion early yesterday in the historic coal country of southeastern Kentucky, according to state and federal officials, bringing the number of coal mining deaths this year to 31 and triggering renewed calls for stronger mine safety rules.

The blast, the cause of which has not been determined, took place at about 1 a.m. during a maintenance shift at Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 in Holmes Mill, Ky. One miner survived and was walking toward the mine entrance when he was found by rescuers. They discovered the bodies of the other five in two groups about 3,000 feet underground before 9 a.m. yesterday, as investigators and government officials raced to the site, a few miles from the Virginia border.

The accident occurred at a time of heightened sensitivity to the dangers of coal mining -- prompted by the deaths in January of a dozen miners in an explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia.

Yesterday, it was the residents of the small community of mountainous Harlan County -- the scene of famous, violent labor unrest over mining conditions during the 1930s -- who were devastated.

"There are just a lot of heartbroken people," Mike Blair, pastor of Cloverfork Missionary Baptist Church, told the Associated Press. Relatives of the miners gathered before dawn at the church, near the mine, to await word.

"Mining is all he's ever done. It was his life," Denise Bean, the stepdaughter of miner Amon Brock, told the Associated Press. She said Brock was from a family of miners.

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) flew to the scene. He promised a thorough investigation and said his administration has been working to lessen mining hazards. "We value all of our coal mining men and women," Fletcher said, "and we want to do what we can to ensure that they all go home safely at the end of their shift."

The deaths were the first in the Kentucky Darby mine since it was taken over in May 2001 by the current operator, Ralph Napier, according to Holly McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. The mine has had three serious accidents in that time.

State and federal mine safety reports show that, in April 2004, a miner suffered a broken pelvis and leg when he was pinned by a 10-foot-long section of mine wall that had broken loose. Two years earlier, another miner was injured when a piece of roof collapsed. And in November 2001, a mining machine operator received what a federal report called "life-threatening crushing injuries" when he, too, was pinned by a section of roof that fell.

Ray McKinney, administrator for coal mine safety and health at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), told reporters that the agency had issued 254 citations, primarily for safety violations, against the mine under its current operator. McKinney said that number was slightly better than average for a mine of its size. He said Kentucky Darby employs 31 miners below ground and three on the surface.

Nationally, the 31 coal mining deaths this year are the most in any year since 2001, when 42 coal miners were killed, according to MSHA figures.

McKinney said that the current price of coal, the highest in two decades, is putting pressure on the industry and that is contributing to mining deaths. "People want to produce more. . . . That's what's happening in the coal industry," he said. "It's complicated by the fact you don't have the workforce available . . . you had in past times" because a generation of miners has retired and not been replaced by as many younger ones. As a result, he said, companies are struggling to recruit, train and "replace the wisdom of the guys that are leaving the industry."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) responded to yesterday's deaths by calling on Congress to adopt legislation, approved last week by a Senate committee, that would require mining companies to increase oxygen supplies inside mines, improve tracking systems and rewrite rescue rules.

McKinney said it was not yet clear whether the Kentucky Darby miners were killed in the explosion or died of asphyxiation.

Fletcher's office identified the four miners who died, in addition to Brock, of Closplint, as Jimmy D. Lee of Wallins Creek; George Petra of Kenvir; and Paris Thomas Jr. and Roy Middleton, both of Evarts. The miner who survived is Paul Ledford, who was treated at a nearby hospital and released a few hours later.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company