Four dead, nine missing after explosion in coal mine

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

BROOKWOOD, Ala. -- Four miners died and nine who rushed in to help were missing and feared dead after explosions rocked the nation's deepest coal mine.

If the deaths of all 13 miners are confirmed, it would be the worst mining accident in the United States since 1984.

"These great acts of unselfishness are eerily reminiscent of the heroes of our Sept. 11 national tragedy," said Don DeFosset, chief executive officer of Walter Industries, which owns the mine and its operator, Jim Walter Resources Inc. "These men gave their lives to help others, just as the firefighters and police of New York did nearly two weeks ago."

Three of the dead and the nine missing remained more than 2,000 feet underground at Blue Creek No. 5 mine, company officials said.

DeFosset said there was an explosion at about 5:15 p.m. Sunday after a cave-in hit electrical equipment and ignited methane gas. At the time, 32 people were in the mine, six of them in the area of the explosion. Three of the six escaped and were hospitalized in stable condition. The other three were left more than three miles from the main elevator, DeFosset said.

Ten miners went to rescue them, but something sparked a second, larger explosion about 45 minutes after the first, DeFosset said. One of ten miners who went in to rescue others was brought out but died at a hospital.

A second wave of rescue workers went into the mine and worked through the night but were unable to reach the area because of fires and methane gas, which is common in coal seams. Company officials said fires still burned Monday, and it was uncertain when a team would search again.

If the deaths are confirmed, it would be the worst loss of life since Dec. 19, 1984, when a faulty air compressor started a fire that killed 27 coal miners near Orangeville, Utah.

Deepest coal shaft

The Alabama mine is the deepest vertical shaft coal mine in North America, with operations at 2,140 feet beneath the surface, the company says. The mine employs 402 people.

Nearly all of the 1,500 residents of Brookwood work in a mine or have relatives or friends who do.

"We've never had anything like this happen before," said Linda Barger, the town clerk. "There are a lot of children who are going to be affected."

The mine, which opened in 1978, produces low-sulfur coal that is burned in power plants and in metallurgical operations.

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