The coal mine buried here under the tortuous Appalachian hills is the jewel of the Clinchfield Coal Company. Slicing through a 40-million-ton seam of high-grade coal, it is the deepest, largest and best equipped of the mines run by Virginia's largest coal producer.

But ever since it opened four years ago the miners of this coal-scarred Cumberland Plateau area in far southwest Virginia have been leery of the mine. Some said they would quit Clinchfield rather than transfer here. Others refused to apply, despite the region's desperately depressed coal economy.

The 300 miners who did work here spoke often of the mine's overriding menace--methane gas.

McClure Number 1 is a "hot mine," miners say. Every day it leaks three million cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere. Some miners feared it could blow at any time.

F.C. Riner, a 58-year-old section foreman described by his family as a Clinchfield "company man," had decided to call it quits after he was transfered last year to McClure Number 1.

"As much as anything else he was retiring because he had been put in that mine," said Thomas Ladd, Riner's son-in-law. "He just felt . . . that something was going to happen and he wanted to get out before it did."

Last Tuesday night at 10:15 p.m., the disaster that many miners had feared finally happened. A gas explosion sent a curtain of fire sweeping through 2,000 feet of one section in the giant mine. Riner, who was to retire on Friday night, was killed, his body badly scorched. Six other miners--including the first woman killed in a Virginia mine--also died and three were badly burned in the worst mining disaster in Virginia in a quarter century. McClure Number 1, a $77-million mine, remains closed as federal authorities piece together the cause of the blast.

The explosion came in the midst of bitter criticism in the coal fields of Reagan administration budget cuts in the Mine Safety and Health Administration and charges by the United Mine Workers of lax enforcement of the country's mine safety laws. McClure Number 1 had received 163 citations for violating health and safety regulations in the past nine months, including more than 30 for improper or faulty ventilation of methane, federal records show. Its accident rate this year was three times the national average and its fatality rate was nine times above the national norm.

Union officials say safety hazards persisted, penalties against the company were light to non-existent and neither MSHA nor state inspectors ever shut down the mine to correct the problems.

"We've had a fatality here every year since 1981 and now we've had this disaster," said Joe Main, administrator of the UMW's health and safety department. "If anyone tries to make me believe that this is common, that this is the status quo, that it ought to be accepted, I don't buy that for a second . . . . This mine has some serious problems."

Ray Ross, the MSHA director in Virginia, acknowleged that methane at McClure Number 1 was a "recurring problem," but denied it was cause for alarm. "All mines are a problem to more or lesser degrees," Ross said.

Clinchfield executives also defended McClure's safety record, saying the unusually high number of citations at the mine is solely because it is so big.

"We consider McClure Number 1 one of the most modern and best coal mines in this country," said Gene Matthis, Clinchfield president. He said the company had "spared no expense" in safety and the ventilation system "was the best that money could buy."

It was the familiar litany of accusation and counter-accusation that follows many mining disasters. But among the families and friends of the dead and injured, there was a sense of resignation.

Most of those killed Tuesday night were the descendants, brothers and fathers of coal miners. The six men and one woman were mountain people and fiercely proud of it. Their lives had been shaped--some in eccentric ways--by a trade that pays well but in return threatens them daily with violent death and grinds away at their health.

For generations, the miners and their families have lived with black lung disease, crippling injuries and chronic arthritis that are all part of working underground in coal.

"People don't get mad," says Tommy Hubble, nephew of Miles W. Sutherland, a miner who suffered burns over 41 percent of his body in the explosion and remains at the burn treatment center at University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. "It just hurts people. People are all tore up."

Since the turn of the century, 101,920 people have been killed in the nation's mines. Since 1964, when records started being kept in Virginia, 351 miners have died. At McClure Number 1, for all its state-of-the-art equipment, 11 persons have been killed in four years.

"We have all lived with the fact of death in the coal mines," says Riner's daughter, Sue Ladd, whose father had 41 years in the mines. "But with Daddy retiring we had allowed ourselves a sense of relief. O.K., no more phone calls ringing in the middle of the night. I can't tell you how many times my phone would ring at night and my first thought was Daddy. Something had happened to Daddy . . . ."

The rugged mountain country of the Cumberland Plateau has been dependent on mining since the late 1920s, when railroad cars began rolling out of Southwest Virginia with millions of tons a year of high-grade metallurgical coal, which is used in steel making. Coal mines scar the mountains; when it rains, many rivers run black. Coal trucks rumble through little towns like McClure and Dante and Grundy, leaving a blanket of black dust on sidewalks and store windows.

When mining booms, as it did from the late 1960s until last year, miners build new houses, buy new pick-up trucks for themselves and new cars for their wives. In recent years, they started buying satellite-dish antennas--the only way to get decent television reception in these hills. Local coal operators bought Rolls Royces and one even bought his own island in the South Pacific.

In the spring of 1982, however, the coal economy here took its sharpest nosedive ever. A lagging national economy and a depression in the automobile and steel industries forced mine closures and layoffs. Unemployment in the state's four Cumberland Plateau counties jumped from from less than 10 to nearly 30 percent. Nearly half the 11,000 UMW miners are still out of work. In the past month, banks that last year repossessed two or three cars a month are taking back two or three a day.

"It is the good customers, those who have been extra good with us about paying their bills, that are just out of money," said Richard Hughes, loan officer for First National Exchange Bank near here.

Throughout the local depression, McClure Number 1 remained open, with far fewer layoffs than other mines in the area. Clinchfield Coal, a division of Pittston Company, one of the nation's largest coal producers, sees the mine as potentially its best money-maker.

In recent weeks the mine called back a few men. One of these was Ernest A. Hall, 30, a foreman who was to take over after Riner retired but who also died in the explosion. On Tuesday, after a year's layoff, he had been back at his $36,000-a-year job for only two weeks.

"Ernie didn't want to go back there, but what do you do when you've got a wife and kid?" asked Kenneth Hall, his brother and a foreman in the same mine.

The evening shift at the mine begins at 4 p.m. Many miners show up early to pitch horseshoes, chew tobacco and gossip.

Dale "Doodle" Stamper Jr., 56, was always one of the first to arrive. His son, three sons-in-law and brother all work in coal. Like them, Stamper could find no other job that would pay him $100 a day. When Stamper had three days off, his family says that by the second day he would pace around his living room, anxious to get back underground. Stamper, who had recently been denied federal black-lung benefits was like many miners here who never speak to their families about danger at work.

"You can't talk about it," said Stamper's son, J.D., who is 30 years old and has been underground for 10 years. "If you did, you couldn't stand it."

Only at work, with the men on his shift, did Stamper speak of "gas."

Riner also would arrive early, sometimes even racing to work in his pick-up. A short, wiry man with a loud laugh, Riner relished Gospel music, turkey shoots and cockfighting. His greatest passion was the mines where he had worked since dropping out of high school at age 17. He had reported sick for work only four days in the past quarter century.

In recent months, however, Riner had become increasingly preoccupied with safety. He would agonize with his family and constantly admonish his crew to be careful. "He'd go from rock to rock checking out the tops, making sure it was OK," said miner Wade Mullins, referring to the roof supports in the shaft. "He'd say, watch the rocks, watch the tops. He preached it to everybody."

Not everybody fretted about safety. There was, for example, 51-year-old Mary Counts-a spunky 5-foot, 3-inch dynamo whom everybody called "Cat."

In her younger days, Cat Counts was a stunning blonde who "looked just like Marilyn Monroe," said Deloris Williams, postmaster in Nora, a small town down the road from McClure. But Counts' life was framed by violence. Her first husband was killed in an oil rig accident, her next lover was shot dead after a poker game and her second husband killed himself with a bullet in the head.

Six years ago, with no other means of support, Counts went to work shoveling coal in the mines. Her daughters tried to get her to quit, but she would hear none of it. She loved the mines, loved the men she worked with, loved the possums and groundhogs she collected around the mines and brought back to the ramshackle trailer where she lived. When others talked about safety and gas, she would sit down with some spare crumbs and share them with the rats that inhabit the mines.

"She used to take food from the house to feed the rats," said Clell Phillips, a burly, bearded miner who lived with her. "People used to say, 'those rats, they weren't scared of Cat.'"

In recent years, Counts had become something of a local legend. A photograph of her in miner's gear with a coal-smeared face was used to promote a coal employment project for women and minorities. A country singer recorded a song about her called "Momma's Goin' to the Mines."

In a local newspaper Counts once wrote about a small fire in the mine where she was working. "I wasn't scared at all," she wrote. "I guess I haven't sense enough to be scared.

On the afternoon of the explosion, Stamper, Riner, Counts and seven others descended in an elevator 400 feet into the seam of bituminous that lies beneath the steep hills here.

The Jawbone seam, as it is known, is a thick layer of high-grade coal, from four to 14 feet high. By the standards of the industry, it is a comfortable mine to work in because one can stand up almost everywhere.

From the elevator, Riner and his crew loaded into an electrically powered jeep that runs on rails for a 10-minute ride to an area of the mine known as Section Two Left. At the face, or end, of that three-tunnelled section, the crew went to work on a giant machine that claws boulder-size chunks of coal from the seam.

About two hours before quitting time, Riner and Luther McCoy, a 17-year veteran of the mines, left the face. They climbed back in the jeep, and headed back toward the elevator.

At 10:15 p.m., with the jeep about 1,200 feet from the face, Section Two Left exploded. Sucking oxygen from the air and feeding on coal dust, a wall of fire roared down all three tunnels of the section. Riner and McCoy were killed in the jeep. At the face, five other miners were killed in a blast of 1,200- to 1,400-degree heat. Three other miners were burned but alive.

A team of federal investigators is still trying to determine the exact cause of the explosion. One foreman at the mine who had access to what he called Clinchfield's "initial theory" of the cause said sparks from the jeep ignited a cloud of methane that had leaked into the mine tunnel.

Explosion scars on the walls of the mine make it apparent that the blast originated from the jeep, said Kenneth Hall, a mine foreman at McClure Number 1 for two years and the brother of one of the victims. Hall said methane gas, later found in that area, must have leaked in from a crack in the roof or the floor of the mine.

"When they came into the pocket of gas, they couldn't have known it was there," said Hall. "At the face, even if they had somewhere to go, they couldn't have outrun the fire. It is not a creeping thing."

Others in the mine at the time said the explosion sounded like a blast of dynamite.

"A powerful big air. It threw me up against the rib wall of the mine ," said Timothy Ruff, 30, who was working in the next tunnel over. "It felt for a second like all the air had gone out of the mine. It felt like they was trying to suck the eardrums out of your ears."

Within minutes, 74 miners found their way out of the smoke-choked mine. Three foremen and a miner went back down, and within 45 minutes rescued the three burned miners. They remain hospitalized, but are expected to recover.

Yesterday, Richard Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers, counseled a convention of women miners in Dawson, Pa., to remember how rescuers found the body of Cat Counts.

"Every time you go into the mines, I want you to think of the picture of Mary Counts laying there with her eyes open and her right hand covering her mouth and her left hand full of rock dust she had clawed up," he said.

In the days following the explosion, the families of the victims went about a familiar ritual. Relatives from out of town descended on isolated mountain hamlets to sit on front porches and console bereaved widows and children. Friends showed up with boxes of groceries and cookies and asked if there was anything they could do to help.

"The Lord has taken your Daddy," an elderly woman told Hall's 6-year-old daugher Brooke.

"Don't He know I need him more?" the child asked.

At Counts' trailer, dogs and cats roamed through the living room and kitchen while Clell Phillips talked about how Counts was looking forward to a vacation in the Smoky Mountains this week. The day of the accident she phoned home.

"She said, 'Now you be extra careful, because vacation is coming up,'" recalled the huge miner, bursting into tears.

At Riner's house, Sue Ladd remembered how her father had carefully planned his retirement. He had a 15-acre farm on Sandy Ridge, a mountain overlooking the coal fields, not far from McClure Number 1.

"He was going to have a garden with corn and beans and a couple of cows, a couple of chickens and a couple of roosters," she said.

After a lifetime in the mines, Riner was looking forward to the sunshine on Sandy Ridge, his daughter said.

"He used to talk about how much he loved the daylight because it was something that he so seldom saw."