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District 4



No. 4 Mine (ID No. 46-08200)
Noseman Branch Mining, Inc.
Lynco, Wyoming County, West Virginia

December 21, 1995


Jerry E. Sumpter

Coal Mine Safety and Health Inspector

Originating Office - Mine Safety and Health Administration
100 Bluestone Road, Mount Hope, WV 25880
Earnest C. Teaster, Jr., District Manager



On Thursday, December 21, 1995, about 4:00 a.m., a fall of highwall accident occurred at the No. 3 drift opening (belt entry) of the Noseman Branch Mining, Inc., No. 4 mine, resulting in fatal crushing injuries to Bilton Blankenship, mobile-bridge operator. Blankenship had 14 years total mining experience. At the time of the accident, Blankenship was helping two other miners and the repairman from M & J Electric install the electric belt-drive motor. About 4:00 a.m., a portion of the highwall at the No. 3 drift began to fall on the metal canopy. Three of the men ran away from the highwall to safety, and Blankenship ran under the metal canopy.

Several minutes later a large portion of the highwall measuring 22 feet in height, 25 feet in width, and 3 to 4 feet in thickness fell, striking the metal canopy. The metal canopy was crushed, and Blankenship was pinned beneath the metal canopy.

The accident and resultant fatality occurred because the highwall contained loose unconsolidated materials, lamination of various coarse sandstone rock, and coal streaks. Mud seams were located to the rear of the unconsolidated materials, and water was seeping from them. Varying temperatures during the time period caused the material to freeze and thaw which could have loosened the highwall material.


The Noseman Branch Mining, Inc., Mine No. 4, is located at Lynco, 1 mile east of Herndon, Wyoming County, West Virginia. The mine is being developed into the Pocahontas No. 3 coal seam by the room-and-pillar method using Joy 14 continuous-mining machines and Long-Airdox mobile bridge-haulage systems. The coal extracted from the working faces was transported outside via a belt-haulage system, loaded onto surface haulage trucks, and transported about 4 miles to the Herndon Processing Plant in Herndon, West Virginia. Mining height ranges from 36 to 60 inches. Employment is provided for 70 workers, of which 64 work underground and 6 on the surface. The mine works on a rotation system, two production and one maintenance shift, 5 and 6 days a week.

An average of 800 clean tons of coal is produced daily from two continuous-mining sections. Battery-operated man trips are used to transport employees in and out of the mine. Two S&S scoops are used to transport supplies into the mine. Production started in August 1995. The mine has five drift openings, two of which are return openings. Ventilation is induced into the mine by one 6-foot blowing fan, which produces about 163,000 cfm. The main fan is located in the No. 4 drift opening. This mine has no history of methane liberation.

Principal officials for Noseman Branch Mining, Inc., are: Dennis E. Cook, president; Jimmy Williams, mine manager; Kenneth Bowles, superintendent; and Frank E. Sparks, training officer.

The last complete inspection (AAA) by the Mine Safety and Health Administration was completed on August 7, 1995.


On Wednesday, December 20, 1995, at 3:00 p.m., the evening shift under the supervision of Kenneth Bowles, superintendent of the mine, was instructed to enter the mine. Normal mine activities began after they arrived on the section. At 6:00 p.m., the mine started experiencing mechanical problems with the surface belt; the main bearing had worn out in the main belt-drive motor. Bowles informed the 001 MMU main section crew to start cleaning up on the section, then start cleaning up on the belt while the main surface belt-drive bearing was being replaced. At 11:00 p.m., the hoot-owl shift relieved the evening-shift crew of their duties on the underground belt and at the surface main belt drive. Dewayne Gambrill, midnight section foreman, reported with his crew inside the mine to the 001 MMU working section and began normal work activities. Rex Hatfield, electrician, along with Michael Workman, outside utility man, Bowles, and Dennis Cook, president, assisted with repairs on the main belt-drive bearing. About 12:01 a.m., on Thursday, December 21, 1995, Hatfield finished the repairs on the belt-drive bearing and went to energize the surface belt. After he energized the surface belt, it would not start. Hatfield deenergized the main electric source at the power station located on the surface. Hatfield went from the power station to the main surface belt-drive motor. He checked the main motor power leads with an ohm meter and discovered that one of the leads had burned in two inside the motor windings. Bowles instructed Hatfield to get another motor from the supply building. Hatfield and the other miners completed installation of the second motor at about 2:00 a.m. They attempted to start the surface belt drive, but the second motor would not start. Hatfield cut off the power and checked the surface belt drive motor. They discovered that it, too, had a bad electrical motor winding. Bowles went to the mine office and ordered a new belt drive motor from M & J Electric.

Bowles instructed Gambrill to send half of his section crew to the surface to assist the electrician with installing the new belt motor when it arrived on mine property and to let the remainder of the inside miners finish removing coal off the main inside belt. This would remove some of the stress and tension on the belt during start-up. Gambrill was also instructed to go to the No. 7 belt entry crosscut and release the main belt take-up.

About 2:20 a.m., the remainder of the inside section crew arrived on the surface. Bowles told half of the men to go over to the change room to get warm because of the extreme cold temperatures outside. Bowles decided to relieve the men out in teams. Bowles, Cook, and Gambrill went to the mine office shortly after 3:00 a.m. to get warm and wait on delivery of the drive motor. Bilton Blankenship, mobile-bridge operator; Michael Workman, outside utility man; and Don Rocchi, beltman, continued to assist Hatfield in removing the belt drive motor and preparing for installation of the new motor. About 3:35 a.m., Terry Keaton, repairman for M & J Electric, arrived at the work area of the surface belt drive. Keaton stated that he backed the delivery truck up to within 6 to 8 feet of the front entrance of the No. 3 drift (belt entry) metal canopy to put the new motor in place with the crane mounted on his delivery truck. Keaton stated he lowered the motor to the ground and remained at his delivery truck while Blankenship, Rocchi, and Workman began cutting plastic from around the motor.

About 4:00 a.m., the highwall above the No. 3 drift (belt entry) began to slide on the metal canopy without warning. Workman, Rocchi, and Keaton ran away from the highwall to safety. Blankenship went under the canopy. Several minutes later another large fall occurred, landing in the middle of the metal canopy, collapsing it, and pinning Blankenship beneath the metal structure.


About 4:30 a.m., attempts by management to recover the victim were implemented, but without success. About 450 tons of rock and mud had covered the metal canopy. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the State authorities were notified shortly after the accident. About 5:30 a.m., after arriving at the mine, MSHA, the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, management, and United Mine Workers of America jointly developed a plan as to how the victim would be recovered. A 103(k) Order was issued to ensure the safety of the miners. It was decided by mine management and agreed to by MSHA and the State to use cribs, wedges, an 870 Komotso end loader, and an excavator to secure and remove the material. Before full recovery could be commenced, the excavator had to be brought to the work site from Earth Energy, Inc., located at Roderfield, West Virginia, about 40 miles from the mine location. Full recovery commenced as soon as the excavator arrived at the site. The materials were systematically removed from the canopy; cautious recovery work continued in a well organized effort. At 12:50 p.m., the victim was recovered. At 1:10 p.m., Jan-Care Ambulance Service loaded the victim into the ambulance and transported the victim to the Wyoming County Coroner's office.

Dr. Dwain pronounced Bilton Blankenship dead on arrival at 3:05 p.m. from crushing injuries to the head and lower extremities.


MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training jointly conducted an investigation with the assistance of mine management, the miners, and representatives of the miners.

All parties were briefed by mine personnel as to the circumstances surrounding the accident. A discussion was held with all persons who had knowledge of the accident. Representatives of all parties traveled to the accident scene, where a thorough examination was conducted. Photographs and relevant measurements were taken and sketches were made at the accident site.

Interviews of individuals known to have direct knowledge of the facts surrounding the accident were conducted in the conference room of the MSHA Field Office at Pineville, West Virginia, on December 22, 1995, at 9:00 a.m.

The physical portion of the investigation was completed on December 28, 1995, and the 103(k) Order was terminated.


A review of the record books indicated all required examinations had been performed.


A review of the records indicated all required training had been conducted in accordance with Part 48.

Physical Factors

  1. The highwall was about 32 feet high.

  2. It had been raining heavily several days prior to the fatal accident.

  3. All five drift entries were provided with metal constructed canopies.

  4. The metal constructed canopies averaged about 5 feet in height and 20 feet in width. The belt-drive motor was located about 6 feet outby the canopy.

  5. The highwall materials that fell on the victim and metal canopy weighed about 450 tons. Twenty-eight tandem truckloads of highwall material were hauled away from the accident site.

  6. The highwall materials that fell, striking the metal canopy at the No. 3 drift, measured 22 feet in height, 25 feet in width, and 3 to 4 feet in thickness.

  7. The overnight temperature fell from 45 degrees into the low teens. Rain, freezing temperatures, and periods of warm temperatures had occurred during the 4-week period prior to the accident.

  8. A daily examination was conducted by a certified foreman and was entered in the approved books kept on the surface. There were no indications of loose materials during the times of the examinations.

  9. During prior inspections of the mine, conducted by MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, no violations were issued on the highwalls. The highwalls appeared to be in good condition prior to the initial fall.

  10. A large mud seam was concealed by the highwall face and could not be detected by visual examination from either the surface or from the roof in the drift opening. An examination was made jointly by MSHA and the State in and inby for about 150 feet in each of the other drift openings. There were no visible surface cracks or mud seams observed.

  11. According to statements made by persons working around the highwall before the accident occurred, there were no indications that the highwall would fall.

  12. The work area was well illuminated at 3:00 a.m. by normal surface lighting.

  13. The belt drive was approximately 30 feet outby the highwall.


The accident and resultant fatality occurred because the highwall contained loose unconsolidated materials, lamination of coarse sandstone rock, and coal streaks. Mud seams were located to the rear of the unconsolidated materials, and water was seeping from them. Varying temperatures during the time period may have caused the material to freeze and thaw, which could have loosened the highwall material.


There were no contributing violations to this accident.

Submitted by:

Jerry E. Sumpter
Coal Mine Safety and Health Inspector

Approved by:

Richard J. Kline
Assistant District Manager

Earnest C. Teaster, Jr.
District Manager

Related Fatal Alert Bulletin:
Fatal Alert Bulletin Icon FAB95C46