WASHINGTON – Five miners were killed in an underground explosion early Saturday in the coal country of southeastern Kentucky, according to state and federal officials, bringing the number of coal mining deaths this year to 31 and triggering renewed calls for stronger mine safety rules.
The blast, the cause of which has not been determined, took place around 1 a.m. during a maintenance shift at Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 in Holmes Mill, Ky. One miner survived and was walking toward the mine entrance when he was found by rescuers. They discovered the bodies of the other five in two groups about 3,000 feet underground before 9 a.m. Saturday, as investigators and government officials raced to the site, a few miles from the Virginia border.
The accident occurred at a time of heightened sensitivity to the dangers of coal mining – prompted by the deaths in January of a dozen miners in an explosion at Sago Mine in West Virginia.
Saturday, it was the residents of the small community of mountainous Harlan County – the scene of famous, violent labor unrest over mining conditions during the 1930s – who were devastated.
Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher flew to the scene. He promised a thorough investigation and said his administration has been working to lessen mining hazards.
The deaths were the first in the Kentucky Darby mine since it was taken over in May 2001 by the current operator, Ralph Napier, according to Holly McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. The mine has had three serious accidents in that time.
State and federal mine safety reports show that, in April 2004, a miner suffered a broken pelvis and leg when he was pinned by a 10-foot-long section of mine wall that had broken loose. Two years earlier, another miner was injured when a piece of roof collapsed. And in November 2001, a mining machine operator received what a federal report called “life-threatening crushing injuries” when he, too, was pinned by a section of roof that fell.
Ray McKinney, administrator for coal mine safety and health at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, told reporters that the agency had issued 254 citations, primarily for safety violations, against the mine under its current operator. McKinney said that number was slightly better than average for a mine of its size. He said Kentucky Darby employs 31 miners below ground and three on the surface.
Nationally, the 31 coal mining deaths this year are the most in any year since 2001, when 42 coal miners were killed, according to MSHA figures.
McKinney said the current price of coal, the highest in two decades, is putting pressure on the industry and that is contributing to mining deaths.
McKinney said it was not yet clear whether the Kentucky Darby miners were killed in the explosion or died of asphyxiation. Fletcher’s office identified the five miners who died as Amon Brock, of Clospint; Jimmy D. Lee, of Wallins Creek; George Petra, of Kenvir; and Paris Thomas Jr. and Roy Middleton, both of Evarts. The miner who survived is Paul Ledford, who was treated at a nearby hospital and released a few hours later.
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