The bodies of Amon Brock, 51, of Closplint, Jimmy B. Lee, 33, of Wallins, Roy Middleton, 35, of Evarts, George William Petra, 49, of Kenvir, and Paris Thomas Jr., 53, of Evarts, were found inside the mine.
Paul Ledford, of Dayhoit, was the only miner of the six inside the mine who survived. He was taken to Wellmont Lonesome Pine Hospital in Big Stone Gap, Va., where he was treated and released.
According to members of Ledford's family, he suffered burns to the body and face.
The six miners were reportedly just beginning a new shift at the mine and were the only miners inside the mine at the time the incident occurred around 1 a.m.
Shortly after the incident occurred, families who arrived at the Kentucky Darby mining property entrance were told to congregate at the Cloverfork Missionary Baptist Church, only a quarter of mile from the mine.
No information was given to family members at that time, but they were assured they would be told any information as soon as it was available.
Not much later at 8:45 a.m., representatives from the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Kentucky Environmental Protection Cabinet and the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing arrived at the church.
“We have three victims,” said MSHA's Dan Johnson. “We have not identified them yet. We are searching for two more, but we have not found them. There was a mine explosion. As soon as we find out more we'll come and tell you. Right now this is still a rescue mission.”
Several of the family members broke down, but nobody knew if their loved one was one of the three victims or the status of the missing two.
An hour later, they were given a second update - two more bodies were found. The families returned to their homes.
Three of the five miners likely survived the initial blast but died of carbon monoxide poisoning, Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi said Sunday based on preliminary autopsy results. The other two miners died from multiple blunt force trauma and heat injuries, probably because they were closer to the blast.
Middleton, Petra and Thomas survived the blast but were suffocated by the poisoned air, Bianchi said.
Bianchi said officials may be able to determine how long the three miners lived before they succumbed, but that would depend on their toxicology reports. He did not give a timetable on when those reports would be completed.
According to Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who arrived on the scene and talked to members of the press, the explosion occurred approximately 5,000 feet within the mine.
Miners who were standing outside the mine were knocked off their feet by the force of the explosion. Oil cans sitting outside the mine were ruptured by flying rock. Soot and ash covered buildings and equipment.
Fletcher said the explosion occurred near an area sealed off to prevent the escape of methane gas, and mine officials suspected gas may have been leaking from the area and was ignited by a spark.
According to Jeff Ledford, a disabled miner who is Paul Ledford's brother, Paul Ledford was working with two of the other miners at the mine face when the explosion occurred.
“One of them was using a torch and cutting something off the tailpiece,” he said, explaining that the tailpiece was a part of the mine belt near the older, sealed off section of the mine.
“He felt something vibrating through his body,” he said, “like when there's a roof fall ... it felt like that.”
According to Jeff Ledford, Paul began to lead the other two miners toward the mine entrance by finding an electrical supply line and following it out, but the two other miners couldn't breathe through the smoke and turned back.
Paul Ledford continued forward with a self-contained self rescuer (SCSR) breathing apparatus, which is designed to supply oxygen for one hour. He said Paul Ledford's air supply only lasted five minutes, and eventually he passed out for over two hours.
He said that his brother regained consciousness at one point and crawled 30 or 40 more feet before passing out a second time. A third time he made it another 40 feet.
“Then he seen some lights down below him,” he said. Ledford turned his light off and then back on. Rescuers saw him and evacuated him from the mine on a mantrip.
The two men who turned back were among the five miners later found dead.
Jeff Ledford said he and Paul had already lost a brother, David Ledford, in a 1996 mining accident.
“If they had the right breathing equipment (Saturday), I know at least three of them might have come out,” Jeff Ledford said. “In my opinion, they should give them the right equipment to work with in the first place. Every mine around here, they try to cover up like everything's all right.”
Ledford's account is similar to the account of Randal McCloy Jr, the lone survivor of the Sago Mine disaster, who said in a letter to the victims' families that at least four of his crew's breathing devices had failed.
According to a report by the Associated Press, investigators will determine whether the breathing devices were functional.
According to Fletcher, the mine has had three serious accidents and eight closure orders since opening in May 2001. Also, he said the mine has had eight non-compliance orders over the past year, the latest of which was issued in April.
Other news agencies have reported that the mine has been issued over 250 citations since 2001.
The mine was opened and operated by Ralph Napier Sr.
Fletcher said that an investigation into the incident will begin Monday, after repairs are made to the mine's ventilation system and breathable air is restored within the mine.
Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi said the bodies will be sent to the state medical examiners office on Sunday.
The families of the victims were all notified within hours of the incident. Eight hours after the incident, family members had already returned home.
When a roof fall killed Brandon Wilder and Russell Cole last year in Stillhouse Mine No. 1 near Cumberland, family members of Cole complained that they hadn't been given any information from the mining company, state or federal officials until two days after the incident. At that point, the family blocked the road and held up signs in demonstration. Later, mine officials from Black Mountain Resources came down to answer questions and inform them of the rescue efforts ongoing in the mine.
When asked about the two incidents in comparison, Fletcher said that he met with the Cole family after the accident and asked, “what could we do better?” Communication was an important issue that came from that meeting and new policies were put into effect to make that a priority, he said.
“There's no reason we can't talk with the families and let them know as much as possible,” he said.
Fletcher commended the work of mine rescue officials, which included those from MSHA, OMSL, a private rescue crew from Lone Mountain Processing and the Harlan County Rescue Squad.
“They saved the life of one man,” said Fletcher.
A new law was passed during the last general assembly that would require state inspectors to visit every coal mine in Kentucky at least three times a year and provides job protection to whistleblowers. The law also requires caches of SCSRs as well as lifelines to help miners find their way out.
During a press conference in Frankfort, Fletcher said there was a possibility that the new law would have helped, but the new law does not go into effect until July 12 in order to allow mines to comply.
Dan Mosley, Harlan County's 911 coordinator, said “As a county, and those with loved ones in the mines, all we can hope for is initiatives to be put in place by the governor and federal officials to make these mines safer.”
He said with the boom in coal production, the possibility of accidents was bound to increase.
This increase claimed the life of a good friend of Mosley's, Jimmy Lee, who he said “was a wonderful man.”
By the afternoon, the normally quiet Holmes Mill area was flooded with reporters and affiliates from nearly every regional and well-known national news organization including CNN, Fox News, NBC and ABC.
Families who had lost a husband, father, brother or son only a few hours earlier took calls and visits from nearly a dozen reporters who searched for information about the five men killed.
Mosley, a former reporter himself, said this was the “most tragic event in Harlan County in my lifetime.”
Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop said it was an “extremely sad day for Harlan County, Kentucky, and the coal mining industry.”
“Our citizens choose to mine coal because it's how they support their families,” he said. “These brave men who perished today put their lives on the line every time they walked into a coal mine. They're heroes ... nothing less than heroes.”
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