Death returned to the coal mines in Big Black Mountain Wednesday night when two miners were killed instantly in a roof fall at the Scotia Coal Co. The Letcher County mine is a subsidiary of Blue Diamond Coal Co., of Knoxville, Tenn.
Rescue teams tunneled six hours through slate and rock to reach another miner, Larkin Napier, 31, who was brought alive to the surface today. A canopy over the mining machine he was operating saved his life.
Grante Sturgill, 46, and Ernest Statzer, 38, died three years and three days after the Scotia coal mine disaster in which 26 men were killed in two gas explosions. Wednesday's fatalities were in the Upper Taggart seam of the mine near the Inboden seam where the 1976 disaster occurred.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) dispatched several officials from its Arlington, Va., office to the mine to investigate the rock fall.
While tragedy seems to stalk Blue Diamond's coal operations, the two deaths Wednesday are the second multiple fatality to take place in the same mountain range this year.
Last month, two Harlan County miners were killed instantly in a roof fall approximately 35 miles from Scotia. An investigation into this accident reportedly prompted a change in MSHA policy requiring its division of safety to be present before an investgation starts. Previous investigations were carried out at the district level.
MSHA files on the Upper Taggart mine disclosed there have been more than 50 violations of federal mine safety laws there this year. In January inspectors cited 26 violations in the mine and in February 32, including two for inadequate roof control which were later corrected.
Ironically, Blue Diamond has contested the requirement that its mine equipment have canopies, and there are eight outstanding violations for lack of the safety feature that saved Napier.