Families, miners question safety of Alabama mine where explosion killed 13

Wednesday, September 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BROOKWOOD, Ala. (AP) _ The co-workers and families of victims caught in two deep coal mine explosions want to know why the mine wasn't made safer after several dangerous incidents that preceded the weekend blast that killed 13.

Some miners said rising levels of volatile methane gas had been ignored by officials at Jim Walter Resources Inc., the mine operator. The explosions have been blamed on methane igniting after a cave-in.

``They wouldn't listen. They didn't do anything,'' said Shirley Hyche, a miner for 20 years at the Blue Creek No. 5 mine, where the accident occurred. Other miners nodded in agreement.

A death toll of 13 from Sunday's explosions was confirmed on Tuesday, making it the deadliest mining accident in the United States since 1984.

Hyche said there had been three recent ``ignitions'' in the mine, in which methane gas quickly flared and went out. ``It was like a little bomb,'' she said.

Kyle Parks, a spokesman for Walter Industries, parent company of the mine operator, said the company won't comment on the miners' complaints until the investigation is complete.

Blue Creek No. 5 Mine reported 9.97 accidents with serious, nonfatal injuries for every 200,000 hours worked last year, according to statistics from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. That was 20 percent more than the national rate of 8.3 accidents with such injuries.

George Richmond, chief operating officer of Jim Walter Resources, has said that the mine, like others in the area, is more hazardous than most mines because of its depth and the high level of methane.

With operations 2,140 feet underground, it is described by the company as the nation's deepest vertical shaft coal mine.

Sunday's accident was the nation's deadliest in a mine since Dec. 19, 1984, when a faulty air compressor started a fire that killed 27 coal miners near Orangeville, Utah.

The Alabama mine, about 40 miles west of Birmingham, had at least five accidents last year in which roofs collapsed or rocks fell on workers _ accidents similar to what caused the deadly blasts Sunday evening.

The company said six miners were in an area where a falling rock struck a large battery charger Sunday, causing a spark that ignited methane. All six were injured, but three of them escaped the mine.

Ten miners who rushed into the mine to rescue their wounded co-workers were killed _ as were the co-workers themselves _ when a second, larger explosion occurred about 45 minutes later.

The three miners who escaped were treated for non-life threatening injuries.

In an attempt to put out the fires still burning in the mine, crews were flooding the affected areas on Tuesday. The company said they planned to eventually reopen the mine.