Methane Leak, Safety Violations Sparked Deadly KY Mine Blast

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Safety violations including use of an open-flame torch near a leaky methane seal sparked a deadly underground explosion at an eastern Kentucky mine in May, authorities said Friday.

The protective seal was "poorly constructed" and failed to meet federal guidelines, according to a report from the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. Five miners died in the May 20 explosion at the Kentucky Darby No. 1 Mine in Harlan County.

The torch ignited the leaking methane as two of the victims - mine foreman Amon Brock and maintenance worker Jimmy Lee - were repairing metal straps that intersected the top of the seal, the report said. The straps were used as underground roof supports.

"In this case, what was done was clearly against regulations," said Susan Bush, commissioner of the state Department for Natural Resources.

The report said Brock and Lee also shouldn't have been allowed to use a torch at that site because ventilation current passed through the area on its way to the surface.

Roof straps must be removed before a seal is built, and they are frequently cut away using hand tools that don't create sparks, officials said.

Bush said state mine safety officials would use the information in the report "to prevent similar occurrences at this mine and other mines."

The Darby mine was sealed off and abandoned Nov. 10, federal authorities have said. State officials released their report to the public Friday, a day after giving it to the families. Tony Oppegard, an attorney representing four of the victims' families, said the miners' widows still had unanswered questions about who ordered Brock and Lee to repair the straps.

"It didn't bring any peace at all. I think it was very difficult for all of them," Oppegard said Friday. "There was anger and sadness."

According to witness testimony, Brock said repairs had to be made to the area before a federal inspector from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, who was inspecting the mine the week of the explosion, returned to the site two days later.

MSHA, which is conducting its own investigation into the blast, declined the state's formal request to interview the inspector, Stanley Sturgill, and obtain copies of his notes pertaining to the mine, state officials said. The federal agency also required Kentucky investigators to submit questions in writing to Sturgill.

State officials on Friday said they received Sturgill's responses late Thursday and haven't had time to review them.

Brock, 51, and Lee, 33, died at the site of the explosion for blunt force trauma and heat injuries. The other three victims - Roy Middleton, 35, Bill Petra, 49, and Paris Thomas Jr., 53 - died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation while trying to escape.

A sixth miner, Paul Ledford, was rescued with minor injuries. A lawyer for Ralph Napier, an owner of mine operator Kentucky Darby LLC, called the state's report incomplete.

"We disagree with many aspects of the report. But I don't want to get into specifics right now," attorney Kent Hendrickson said. "There's a more complete MSHA federal report to follow."

The federal report is expected to be released by March, Fillpot said. Calls to Napier's home went unanswered and co-owner John D. North could not be located for comment.

Other major findings listed in the state's report were: -In March, Darby mine examiner Tom Lunsford notified mine boss Ralph Napier that metal roof straps were present where the seals were to be constructed later in the month. Napier allowed the seals to be built anyway. -During seal construction, the fiberglass blocks used were "dry stacked" without adhesive and were not secured properly to the mine floor, which violated the ventilation plan.

The sealant that was sprayed over the seal also was not approved by MSHA. -The torch found at the explosion site had its fuel and oxygen
valves turned toward the "off" position. However, both valves were still positioned to release fuel to the torch.
Associated Press reporter Joe Biesk in Frankfort contributed to
this report.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)