Ky. Miners Used Air Packs Like Sago Miners

By SAMIRA JAFARI
The Associated Press
Monday, May 22, 2006; 11:03 PM

HOLMES MILL, Ky. -- The men who died from carbon monoxide poisoning at an eastern Kentucky coal mine were using the exact air pack model as the Sago Mine disaster victims, even though the lone survivor had questioned the reliability of the devices about a month ago.

Holly McCoy, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, said the self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, used Saturday were the exact models the Sago miners were using: CSE SR-100.

Citing preliminary tests, a coroner said Sunday that three of the five Kentucky miners who died in a Harlan County mine Saturday survived the initial blast but succumbed to carbon monoxide. A sixth miner made it out alive.

David Dye, acting administrator of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in a statement Monday that the air pack of Kentucky's survivor had worked properly.

"Rescue workers who encountered the survivor during his escape independently corroborated that the survivor was using his SCSR when they encountered him," Dye said.

The federal agency said Monday that the explosion's cause remained under investigation. But it also said rescuers reported that seals used to close off a previously mined area did not withstand the blast.

Because of that information, the agency said it was issuing a moratorium on the type of seals used at the Kentucky mine and at Sago, and would require solid, concrete-block seals while the issue is under review.

"MSHA will require that coal-mine operators immediately examine the structural integrity of all of their alternative seals and test the atmosphere behind these seals to protect against hazardous conditions for miners," Dye said.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher said he has ordered all underground coal mines that use similar seals to monitor methane more closely to determine whether the seals are leaking.

Paris Thomas Jr., 35, Roy Middleton, 35, and George Petra, 49, died of carbon monoxide poisoning, the coroner said. Amon Brock, 51, and Jimmy D. Lee, 33, died of blunt force and heat injuries.

The autopsy findings infuriated several victims' relatives, including Middleton's wife, Mary.

"It makes me upset that he smothered to death," she said. "They need to have more oxygen for them."

Jeff Ledford, whose brother Paul was the lone survivor, has disputed MSHA's assertion that his brother's air pack was working. He repeated Monday that his brother told him his SCSR worked for only five minutes.

Randal McCloy Jr., the lone survivor of the Sago disaster that killed 12 miners in January, said in a letter to the victims' families last month that at least four of his crew's air packs had failed, forcing the men to share what little oxygen they had as the mine filed with smoke and carbon monoxide.

During a hearing on the Sago disaster, an MSHA official testified that tests on the air packs showed none had been used to their full capacity before the trapped miners discarded them.

Scott Shearer, president of CSE, the Pennsylvania company that makes the air packs, was unavailable for comment Monday, a receptionist said.

Kentucky legislators responding to the deadly accidents at mines across the country, including the Sago blast, passed a measure requiring mines to store breathing devices underground and to set up lifelines to help miners find their way out. But the law does not take effect until July.

One state lawmaker called Monday for a legislative committee to hold hearings in the coalfields to gather suggestions from miners and their families on how to make mining safer.

A U.S. Senate panel last week approved a bill that would require miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available instead of one as required under the current policy. It also would require mine operators to store extra oxygen packs along escape routes.

MSHA recently issued a temporary rule requiring coal operators to give miners extra oxygen, but miners and their advocates have been pressing Congress for a permanent fix.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said mining companies have placed so many orders for additional air packs that it could take manufacturers two years to fill the demand.

The underground mine, about 250 miles southeast of Louisville near the Virginia border, is operated by Kentucky Darby LLC. Company officials have repeatedly declined to comment. Calls to the mine office went unanswered Monday afternoon.

It was the deadliest mining incident in the state since 1989, when 10 miners died in a western Kentucky mine blast, state officials said. The national death toll from coal mining accidents this year is 31, with 10 of them in Kentucky. That is up from a total of 22 in all of 2005.

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