HARLAN, Ky. (AP) - The illegal use of a cutting torch ignited an underground methane gas explosion that killed five coal miners last year, and the mine operator was fined $336,000 for the violations, federal investigators said late Thursday.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration met with the miners' family members to discuss their investigation of the deadly blast before their report was released to the public.
Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 violated six safety and health laws, including the torch and flawed construction of the safety barrier that caused the blast at Darby Mine No. 1, according to the report.
"Violations of mandatory mine safety laws led to the fatal accident taking the lives of five miners at the Darby Mine," Richard E. Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a statement. "We at MSHA extend our thoughts and prayers to the families for their losses, and we thank them for their patience as we worked to complete our investigation."
Four months ago, state investigators announced a similar conclusion, saying mine operators knew methane was penetrating the safety barrier and should have corrected the problem when it was first detected.
State inspectors issued seven citations to Kentucky Darby for safety violations. Some of those violations, investigators said, were directly related to the blast, including improper use of a torch, improperly trained employees and incorrect construction of the seal.
The May 20, 2006 tragedy led to major modifications to Kentucky's mine safety laws earlier this year.
Jimmy Lee, 33, and Amon Brock, 51, died at the scene of the explosion from 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.
"There will never be closure for us, I don't guess," widow Tilda Thomas said before Thursday's meeting.
Last year was one of the deadliest in recent history for coal miners in Kentucky. In all, 16 miners were killed on the job, prompting state lawmakers into action.
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