Report: Methane Leak, Safety Violations Sparked Deadly Ky. Blast

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - An underground explosion that killed five Kentucky coal miners was caused by a preventable methane leak, the use of a cutting torch and other mine violations, according to a state investigative report released Friday.

Methane had leaked from a "poorly constructed" protective seal at Kentucky Darby LLC, No. 1 mine in Harlan County, the report said. The seal was one of two at the mine that were supposed to keep combustible and poisonous gases underground, but neither met federal guidelines.

When the blast rocked the surface of the mine in May, coal boss Ralph Napier said, "Maybe the seals have blown out and we've had an explosion," according to the report.

The gas was ignited by an open-flame torch used by two of the victims, mine foreman Amon Brock and maintenance worker Jimmy Lee, who were making repairs to metal straps used as underground roof supports. The straps intersected the top of the seal, leaving room for a methane leak and serving as heat conductors - or a fuse if an ignition source is present.

"In this case, what was done was clearly against regulations," Susan Bush, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources, said at a news conference.

The report also said Brock and Lee shouldn't have been allowed to use a torch at the site of the repairs because that section of the mine was in the "return air course," the ventilation current that passes through active mine areas and is returning to the surface.

According to witness testimony, Brock had said they had to make repairs 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. The federal agency also required Kentucky investigators to submit questions in writing to Sturgill.

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.

Napier's attorney 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."

MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot said the federal report is expected to be released by March.

The families of the victims met with state officials Thursday evening to review the report.

Tony Oppegard, an attorney representing four of the families, said Friday that the report offered little closure.

"It didn't bring any peace at all. I think it was very difficult for all of them," said Oppegard, who participated in the
closed-door employee interviews conducted separately by MSHA and the state. "There was anger and sadness."

Oppegard said the widows of the miners still had unanswered questions, specifically about who ordered Brock and Lee to repair the straps.

Other major findings listed in the 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.

The OMSL report is available on-line at www.EPPC.ky.gov, www.DNR.ky.gov and www.OMSL.ky.gov

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved


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