Three of the five miners killed in an explosion in an eastern Kentucky coal mine likely survived the initial blast but died of carbon monoxide poisoning, a coroner said Sunday based on preliminary autopsy results.
The other two miners died from multiple blunt force trauma and heat injuries, probably because they were closer to the Saturday blast, Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi said.
The cause of the blast at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County remained under investigation. Pockets of methane gas inside still were a danger a day after the accident, said Mark York, spokesman for the Kentucky Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet. Repairs were needed on the ventilation system so it would be safe for investigators to enter the mine Monday.
The underground mine, operated by Kentucky Darby LLC, is about 250 miles southeast of Louisville near the Virginia border.
Roy Middleton, 35; George William Petra, 49; and Paris Thomas Jr., 53, survived the blast but were suffocated by the poisoned air, Bianchi said.
Bianchi said officials may be able to determine how long the three miners lived before they succumbed, but that would depend on their toxicology reports. He did not give a timetable on when those reports would be completed.
Family members enraged
The initial reports infuriated some family members. “It makes me upset that he smothered to death,” Mary Middleton said about her husband. “They need to have more oxygen for them.”
Officials are investigating whether the breathing devices, the self-contained self-rescuers, used by the miners were working properly.
“What they told me was when they found my husband, he had the rescuer on, and he was trying to get out,” said Tilda Thomas.
“I just think all miners everywhere need bigger oxygen supplies. The rescuers only have an hour supply, even if they work at all.”
Paul Ledford, the lone survivor, told his brother his breather only worked for about five minutes.
“It’s about having something to survive, they need to keep up with the technology,” Jeff Ledford said. Ledford survived by crawling to the entrance of the mine.
Kentucky legislators responding to the deadly accidents at mines across the country, including January’s disaster that killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, 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 doesn’t take effect until July.
Also killed in the blast were Amon Brock, 51, and Jimmy D. Lee, 33.
Prayers for dead and living
On Sunday, the community around the Holmes Mill area prayed for the dead miners and their families at regular worship services.
About two dozen people gathered at the Closplint Church of God in Harlan County, not far from the mine.
“We lost some friends yesterday. Some wives lost husbands. Some sons lost fathers. It’s really sad,” said Stevie Sizemore, a Harlan County miner who said he was friends with all the victims.
Since Kentucky Darby took over as operator in May 2001, there had been 10 injuries and no deaths at the mine until Saturday, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which had been in the process of a regular inspection of the mine.
Saturday’s explosion 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 is now 31 this year, with 10 of them in Kentucky.
Local magistrate Chad Brock said the deaths would touch many lives. “There’s not going to be a family that’s not affected in some way,” he said. “You either know them or you’re kin to them.”
‘A horrific year’
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts urged state and federal mine officials to “redouble their inspection and enforcement activities, starting now.”
“This tragedy only compounds what has already been a horrific year in America’s coal mines,” Roberts said in a statement.
Mine safety issues have increasingly been a key concern of lawmakers.
Late last week, a key Senate committee endorsed a bill to make coal mining safer. The legislation would require miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available instead of one and would require mine operators to store extra oxygen packs along escape routes.
The bill also would require mines to have two-way wireless communications and tracking systems in place within three years. It now goes to the full Senate.
Miners press for help
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a key architect of the bill, said the explosion “underscores the need for swift action to improve the safety of our nation’s coal mines.”
The Mine Safety and Health Administration recently issued a temporary rule requiring coal operators to give miners extra oxygen, but miners have been pressing Congress for a permanent fix.
In the Jan. 2 Sago explosion, one man was killed in the blast and 11 others died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Randal McCloy Jr., the only miner who survived, has said at least four of the miners’ air packs did not work, forcing the men to share.
According to a 2004 report by the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, there were 608 coal mines in the state, including 296 underground mines.