Team Selected to Investigate Fatal Alabama Coal Mine Blast

MSHA has sent a large team of agency experts to Alabama to investigate the worst mining accident in recent history.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has sent a large team to investigate the fatal coal mine blast at Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Dave Lauriski made the announcement from the agency''s district office in Birmingham, Ala. The investigation began immediately following the announcement.

At approximately 5:45 p.m. on Sept. 23, mine management reported to MSHA that a roof fall had occurred at the mine followed by an ignition of methane gas, and that miners were unaccounted for. MSHA officials went directly to the mine, and rescue teams were sent in.

On the morning of Sept. 24, the rescue teams were withdrawn because conditions in the mine made additional underground rescue efforts impossible due to fires, elevated methane and carbon monoxide.The four parties involved in the recovery effort (Jim Walter Resources, the UMWA, the State of Alabama, and MSHA) announced soon after that water was being pumped into the area to extinguish fires. As of Tuesday, Sept. 25, approximately 3.9 million gallons were pumped into the area at a rate of about 4,300 gallons per minute.

Jim Walter Resources confirmed on Tuesday, Sept. 25, that two underground explosions and a fire on Sept. 23 resulted in 13 fatalities.

"We at MSHA feel deep sympathy for the families, friends and co-workers of the miners who lost their lives in this tragic accident," said Lauriski. "We will work diligently to find out the root cause of how it occurred. Our team will conduct an exhaustive investigation and our findings will provide information that the mining community can use to prevent such accidents in the future."

Ray McKinney, manager of MSHA''s district office in Norton, Va., will head up the investigation. He will be aided by Bill Crocco, accident investigation program manager from the agency''s headquarters office in Arlington, Va.; Kevin Strickland, assistant district manager, New Stanton, Pa.; Stanley Blankenship, supervisory special investigator, Norton, Va.; Kenny Murray, supervisory coal mine inspector, Pikeville, Ky.; Roy Davison, supervisory coal mine inspector, Norton, Va.; Clete Stephan, mining engineer from the agency''s technical support division in Triadelphia, W.Va.; John Urosek, ventilation division chief in the technical support division, Triadelphia, W.Va.; and Mark Malecki, attorney, from the Department of Labor ''s Office of the Solicitor, Division of Mine Safety and Health, Arlington, Va.

Team members will examine the accident site, interview mine personnel and examine any mining equipment that may have been involved in the accident. The investigation could take several months to complete, depending on the conditions encountered and the complexity of the evidence that must be pieced together to develop the full picture of how the accident occurred.

Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao attended a memorial service for the miners on Sept. 27 in Alabama and visited the mine.

Saying she visited "Ground Zero" in New York where the World Trade Center once stood, she noted that she had just visited another "Ground Zero," the site of the worst mining disaster in decades.

"In both places, we have seen images of destruction that have forever seared our memory. And in the deepest darkness of these tragedies, we have also seen the best that America has to offer," said Chao. "People rushing instinctively toward the danger - instead of away from it - to try to save others."

She mentioned stories being passed around at the site of miners who barely escaped the first blast running back into the mine to help those still trapped and quoted one No. 5 miner, Michael Goggins, who said, "They probably didn''t even give it a second thought."

Saying that "America''s heroes are mostly ordinary people who do extraordinary things with extraordinary courage," Chao added that the Department of Labor is determined "to do everything we possibly can to keep it from ever happening again."

by Sandy Smith

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