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Ky. coroner blames bad air

Published May 22, 2006

HOLMES MILL, Ky. - Three of the five miners killed in an explosion in an eastern Kentucky coal mine likely survived the initial blast but died of carbon monoxide poisoning, a coroner 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 Saturday blast, Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi said.

The cause of the blast at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County remained under investigation.

Pockets of methane gas inside still were a danger a day after the accident, said Mark York, spokesman for the Kentucky Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet. Repairs were needed on the ventilation system so it would be safe for investigators to enter the mine today.

The underground mine, operated by Kentucky Darby LLC, is about 250 miles southeast of Louisville near the Virginia border.

Roy Middleton, 35, George William Petra, 49, and Paris Thomas Jr., 53, 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.

The initial reports infuriated family members.

"It makes me upset that he smothered to death," Mary Middleton said about her husband. "They need to have more oxygen for them."

Officials are investigating whether breathing devices, the self-contained self-rescuers, used by the miners were working properly.

"What they told me was when they found my husband, he had the rescuer on, and he was trying to get out," Tilda Thomas said.

"I just think all miners everywhere need bigger oxygen supplies. The rescuers only have an hour supply, even if they work at all."

Paul Ledford, the lone survivor, told his brother that his breather only worked for about five minutes.

"It's about having something to survive, they need to keep up with the technology," Jeff Ledford said. Paul Ledford survived by crawling to the entrance of the mine.

Kentucky legislators responding to deadly accidents at mines across the country, including January's disaster that killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, passed a measure requiring mines to store breathing devices underground and to set up lifelines to help miners find their way out. But the law doesn't take effect until July.

Also killed in the blast were Amon Brock, 51, and Jimmy D. Lee, 33.

On Sunday, the community around the Holmes Mill area prayed for the dead miners and their families at regular worship services.

About two dozen people gathered at the Closplint Church of God in Harlan County, not far from the mine.

"We lost some friends yesterday. Some wives lost husbands. Some sons lost fathers. It's really sad," said Stevie Sizemore, a Harlan County miner who said he was friends with the victims.

Since Kentucky Darby took over as operator in May 2001, there had been 10 injuries and no deaths at the mine until Saturday, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which had been in the process of a regular inspection of the mine.

The national death toll from coal mining accidents is now 31 this year, with 10 of them in Kentucky.

Darby mine had no unusual safety issues, official says

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Harlan County mine had no previous fatalities and did not have a high number of safety citations, according to a top official of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Federal inspectors had written 264 citations and orders for various violations at the mine since the current operator, Kentucky Darby LLC, took over the Darby Mine No. 1 in May 2001, according to the MSHA Web site.

That is not an unusual number for a mine of that size and type, said Ray McKinney, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety and health.

Information from Knight Ridder News Service was used in this report.

[Last modified May 22, 2006, 07:52:02]

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