Five killed in Kentucky coal mine blast
Federal mine safety official: Survivor might shed light on cause

Saturday, May 20, 2006; Posted: 6:16 p.m. EDT (22:16 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An explosion at an eastern Kentucky coal mine killed five miners Saturday, but a sixth survived and walked out on his own, a Mine Safety and Health Administration official confirmed.

Four of the five victims were found near one another about 3,000 feet underground, said Ray McKinney, administrator for the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Coal Mine Safety and Health division.

The fifth victim was found in another part of the mine, he said.

The victims were identified as Amon Brock of Closplint; Jimmy D. Lee of Wallins Creek; George Petra of Kenvir; and Paris Thomas Jr. and Roy Middleton, both of Evarts, according to the Kentucky governor's office.

The blast occurred in Holmes Mill, on the Virginia border, at Darby Mine No. 1 about 1 a.m., McKinney said. Because it was during a maintenance shift, no coal was being mined at the time, he said. (Where is Holmes Mill?)

The survivor, Paul Ledford, was found about 15 feet from a mine entrance, McKinney said.

Ledford, who was able to walk out of the mine, was taken to Lonesome Pine Hospital in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Hospital spokeswoman Amy Stevens said he arrived about 4:15 a.m. and was treated and released at 8 a.m.

McKinney said Ledford might be key to understanding how the explosion took place and that an investigation will begin as soon as the mine's ventilation system is reconstructed.

Local magistrate Chad Brock told The Associated Press that the deaths would touch many lives.

"There's not going to be a family that's not affected in some way," he said. "You either know them or you're kin to them."

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

Since 2001, the mine has had 254 MSHA citations, which McKinney characterized as "below the national incident rate" for a mine of that size. Before Saturday, there were "no indication of fatalities at this mine at all," he said.

'Clearly an emergency'
U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the mine blast highlights an emergency within the industry regarding mine safety.

"These five deaths bring the grim toll of coal miners killed on the job this year to 31, compared with 22 in all of 2005," Miller said. "This is clearly an emergency. In light of this most recent tragedy, it would be criminal neglect for the U.S. Congress to continue to fail to pass mine safety reform legislation. The foot-dragging has got to stop."

A Senate committee endorsed a bill last week aimed at making coal mining safer. Senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unanimously backed the bill, crafted by Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

The bill would require miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available instead of the one that the current policy requires.

Randal McCloy Jr, the only survivor of January's Sago mine disaster that killed 11 miners, revealed in April that emergency air packs were in short supply as the men trapped with him awaited rescue. He said at least four of their air packs did not work, and they were forced to share the devices.

"There were not enough rescuers to go around," McCloy said in a letter to his co-workers' families. (Full story)

Under the bill in Congress, mine operators also must store extra oxygen along escape routes. The bill would also require each mine to make available two experienced rescue teams capable of a one-hour response time, and it would compel mines to have two-way wireless communications and tracking systems in place within three years. It now goes to the full Senate.

Kennedy said in a statement: "We cannot bring back the brave miners who have died this year. But we can and must honor their memory by making all our mines safer."

The Mine Safety and Health Administration recently issued a temporary rule requiring coal operators to give miners extra oxygen, Bruce Dial, a mine safety expert, told CNN on Saturday, but many miners want a permanent measure in place.