Posted on: May 19, 2016
On Saturday, May 20, 2006 in the darkened hillside of Holmes Mill, Kentucky, miners standing outside of mine entrances were suddenly and violently knocked to the ground by an explosion that occurred 3,000 feet underground covering the surface area and equipment with soot and ash and the smell of burnt coal.
Tragedy struck. Instantly, two men became the 27th and 28th coal mining fatalities that year. Three others would later succumb to deadly fumes bringing the total year-to-date deaths that May to 31, 10 of those in Kentucky alone.
Six miners were inside the mine at the time of the explosion. Paul E. Ledford, then 35 years old, had 16 years of mining experience, 2 of them at the mine that claimed the lives of his friends and coworkers. He was the only man to escape, literally crawling his way to survival.
At approximately 1:00 a.m. Jimmy D. Lee (33), Shuttle Car Operator of 15 years, was working at removing metal roof straps with an acetylene torch on a section of the mine he had worked for 3 years. Taking notes and supervising the work was 51 year old, Afternoon Shift Foreman, Amon “Cotton” Brock, who with 37 years of mining under his belt had spent 4 years in the Kentucky Darby mine. Both men had started their day at 3:45 p.m. and were working on the repairs after their shifts had ended, when the cutting caused a methane explosion behind a seal on a section of the mine that had been sealed off due to the lethal gas. The blast carried both men over 200 feet from the faulty seal.
In another section of the mine, Ledford and three other men heard and felt the explosion, Ledford had later described it as feeling something vibrate through his entire body. Then the mine filled with a thick, choking smoke that smothered all light inside and left the four men in darkness.
At 1:05 a.m. MSHA was notified of a possible explosion by Ralph Napier, operator and co-owner of Kentucky Darby, LLC. Napier then left for the mine that was founded in 2001. Darby was significantly worse than the national average in nonfatal injuries but had zero fatalities.
Inside the mine, Ledford had separated from his three companions, attempting escape by continuing to follow a high voltage power cable to safety, while Foreman George “Bill” Petra (49), Electrician Roy Middleton (35), and Mechanic Paris Thomas, Jr. (53) daunted by the choking fumes despite the self-contained self rescuer (SCSR) units they all had, turned back trying to make their way to the power center.
For Ledford, he remembers his SCSR providing only 5 minutes of air before he lost consciousness alone in the dark.
Worried families had settled in the Cloverfork Missionary Baptist Church less than a mile from the mine to await official word on their loved ones.
At 2:32, rescuers from MSHA, Kentucky’s Office of Mine Safety and Licensing (OMSL), Kentucky Darby and others, were entering the mine after monitoring readings for explosives and gasses.
A half-hour later, Ledford came to. Unable to walk and breathing in the toxic air that would permanently damage his lungs, he crawled, in the dark and in the fumes until exhausted, he once again passed out.
Rescuers were finding evidence of extensive amounts of carbon monoxide released by the deadly blast.
Somewhere around 3:05 a.m. Ledford awoke again and continued crawling through the mine. Seeing a light below him, he was able to signal the rescuers by turning his lamp light off and then back on, but still couldn’t walk. He was taken by buggy to the surface at 3:30.
Eventually all the miners would be found. First was Thomas from Evarts, Kentucky at 4:15 a.m. shortly before daybreak, then Petra of Kenvir and the then unidentified Lee from Wallins Creek at 5:15 a.m.
It would be hours until Middleton, also of Evarts, would be found at 8:45 a.m., while officials were meeting with the families at the church to give them the grim update.
At 8:50 a.m. Brock’s body was discovered - the last of the five accounted for.
In the ten years since that darkened morning, NPR’s All Things Considered reported mine owner Ralph Napier continued in the mining industry with an interest in nine delinquent mines owing nearly $3 million in fines as of 2014, $500,000 of it related to the Darby disaster.
The MSHA official report on the disaster concluded: “The accident occurred because the operator did not observe basic mine safety practices and because critical safety standards were violated. Mine management failed to ensure that proper seal construction procedures were utilized in the building of the seals at the A Left Section.”
At the Department of Labor 2016 Secretary’s Honor Awards Ceremony, MSHA’s Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health, Kevin Stricklin noted that the number of coal mining fatalities had reached a historic low of 11 in 2015. Efforts continue to bring this number to zero.
Incorporating state-of-the-art communications and mapping tools, safety training, and increased inspections will bring more miners home.
New atmospheric monitoring technology features sensors capable of being left at locations in the mine when rescuers move forward or are forced to retreat, which improves rescue attempts.
Upgraded MSHA command centers also ensure there are more survivors like Paul Ledford in the event of an emergency.
Today, MSHA Assistant Secretary, Joe Main emphasizes the importance of bringing miners home at the end of every shift through committed safety initiatives, recognizing “the impact, not just on the miners, but the mining families and the entire mining community.”
The service of the five men who didn’t survive the Darby disaster will not be forgotten. “Cotton” Brock’s notebook found in the rubble inside Mine No. 1 showed that he was just doing his job – “Cut Straps - 2 Bulkheads Sealed,” it read. Nobody should lose their life by simply doing their job.