Vintage: Remembering the Pyro Mine Explosion in Kentucky where 10 miners lost their lives thirty years ago
At about 9h13 on the morning of 13 September 1989, an explosion occurred on Longwall Panel "O" between the fourth and fifth West entries off the first Main North entry, of Pyro Mining Company's Pyro No 9 Slope, William Station Mine, located at Sullivan, Kentucky. 14 miners were present in the longwall recovery area at the time of the explosion. Ten died as a result of the explosion; four escaped despite being exposed to high concentrations of carbon monoxide and smoke.
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigators concluded that the primary cause of the explosion was the failure of management to maintain a sufficient volume and velocity of air in the proper direction in the fourth West entries and longwall face to dilute, render harmless and carry away methane accumulations in that area. Changes had occurred during the mining of Longwall Panel "O" in the fourth and fifth West entries and in the longwall bleeder ventilation system. The removal of the stopping in the No 1 cut-through entry between the fourth and fifth West entries disrupted the separation between the second Main North entry's ventilation system and the longwall bleeder system.
These changes decreased the airflow across the longwall face and permitted methane to migrate from the gob and accumulate in the No 2 entry of the fourth West entries in by the No 6 crosscut and near the longwall headgate.
This caused an explosive methane-air mixture to flow toward and into the longwall recovery area where it was ignited by one of five probable sources:
Conditions and practices that contributed to the explosion include:
Autopsies on nine of the 10 miners killed in the underground methane gas explosion indicated they "lived minutes at the maximum, probably more like seconds," the medical examiner said. "The inhalation of superheated gases and inhalation of carbon monoxide in high concentrations is rapidly fatal," Dr George Nichols said at a news conference. He said nine died of smoke inhalation and another, who survived for a brief period at Union County Methodist Hospital, died from carbon monoxide inhalation in the nation's worst coal mine disaster since 1984.
The explosion occurred on Wednesday morning about 1 000 feet underground in the Pyro Mining Co's William Station Mine at Wheatcroft, a rural area about 35 miles northwest of here. A federal investigating team headed to the mine on Thursday. "We want to find out what happened so we can take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Frank O'Gorman, a public information specialist with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in Arlington, Virginia. The formal investigation probably will not begin until today, he said.
Nichols said there was no evidence of any disabling injuries to anyone else at the mine, which employees 367 workers on three shifts. "That indicates to me that the explosion caused a vast amount of carbon monoxide to be formed but not a huge concussive type of explosion," he said.
The medical examiner said there was evidence that one of the miners had removed a self-rescuer mask from his pack but that it hadn't been applied to his mouth or nose. Miners carry the devices on their belts to filter out poisonous carbon monoxide in emergencies.
Nichols said that use of the self-rescuer in saving the lives would depend on the concentration of carbon monoxide in the mine.
One miner, who refused to identify himself, said several of his co-workers had expected an explosion in the mine. "We all had the same thought on our minds," he said at the Miner's Diner in Wheatcroft. "Somebody is going to drop the ball. We're just thankful -- it's horrible, it's awful -- that it was just 10 men." The miner said he and other miners thought that when an explosion occurred, "it was going to be all of Williams Station." He said methane gas build-up is inevitable, no matter how much ventilation is used.
Charles Schulties, president of Pyro's parent company, Costain Coal Inc, said something may have caused a build-up of methane, an explosive gas that occurs naturally in coal seams and that mine operators are required to ventilate. He acknowledged that the US Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the mine about two months ago for high levels of methane.
Ed Calman, a Pyro spokesman, said the company would have no comment until the investigation is completed. The investigation is expected to take several weeks.
Wednesday's explosion occurred as the miners dismantled longwall mining machinery, which continuously moves a cutter from side to side along a long exposed coal face, O'Gorman said.
Sharon Scott, wife of one of the victims, Curtis Scott, 47, of Madisonville, said her husband never talked at home about his work in the mines. "He was quiet," she said. "He didn't like to talk about work at home, and he never discussed anything about it once he got home. He always left his work back at the mines."
The other victims were:
Lynn Austin Ashmore, 31, of Slaughters
Kenneth Edward Reed, 32, of Slaughters
Roger Clifford, 32, of Morganfield
Mark Steven Hedges, 31, of Morganfield
Rick Dale Furgerson, 34, of Madisonville
Paul Terry Harris, 39, of Providence
Anthony Terry McElroy, 36, of Providence
Ernest Warren Stewart, 40, of Mortons Gap
James Anthony Tinsley, 36, of Marion
Source: Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States - Volume II