WASHINGTON — The Sago mine disaster has focused attention on the hazards miners face underground. But it was hardly the only unsafe mine.
The inside of Coal Creek mine in southeastern Kentucky was videotaped by a miner who smuggled a camera into work in June 2004 to document what he said were dangerous conditions.
Twenty-five–year-old Edwin Pennington told his wife he’d had a close call the day before. “He was scared. He said he almost got hit by the rock and that it barely missed him,” said his wife, Tasha Pennington.
So Pennington went back with his camera, and he ended up taping the final minutes of his own life. His family sometimes watches the tape, even though they know how it ends.
“I’d give anything in this world if there was some way that you could pause it and tell them to get out,” says his brother Darren Pennington.
The miners, in a space only four feet tall, work to shore up the timbers that brace a part of the mine's roof. The videotape shows one of the timbers broken, and bits of rock dribbling down. One miner nervously tests the roof with his hammer, aware they are working directly underneath a giant seam in the rock. The miners even joke about death.
Soon after, a rock falls and the roof seems to be bulging. The miners try to scramble away, but eventually, Pennington is crushed under a slab of rock 200 feet long. The other miners escape.
A federal investigation found “high negligence” on the part of the company, Bell County Coal Corp., and that a mine foreman knew about giant cracks in the roof but did not warn the men or get them out of the area.
Documents show that the company had been cited for more than 60 safety violations in five months before the accident, half labeled “significant and substantial.” One of the most serious was allowing miners to work under an unsupported roof, and included a $3,600 fine.
A former federal mine safety official who investigated Pennington’s death for the state says this tragedy underscores a widespread problem in mines across the country. He says fines are too small to induce companies to fix hazards, and the entire mine safety system has no teeth.
“The company’s been going on about its business for the last year and a half basically without any consequences so far,” says Tony Oppegard, a former mine safety official.
Edwin’s father, Everett, is frustrated: “Nobody’s been held accountable for his death. It’s just as if it never happened.”
Bell County Coal refused to comment. The company is challenging $154,000 in fines for safety violations associated with Pennington’s death, calling them unsubstantiated and “excessive.”
Lisa Myers is NBC's Senior Investigative Correspondent.
Aram Roston is an NBC investigative producer.