By Bill Estep And Lee Mueller - Lexington,KY,USA

May 25, 2006

HOLMES MILL - The only survivor of last week's fatal coal-mine blast in Harlan County, crawling away from death on his hands and knees, was nearly too exhausted to keep going when rescuers found him.

But a quick response helped ensure that Paul "Smiley" Ledford would not be the sixth fatality in Kentucky's deadliest mining disaster in 16 years.

The blast at the Kentucky Darby LLC mine in Harlan County, not far from the highest mountain in the state, happened about 1 a.m. Saturday. Rescuers went in at 2:30 a.m. and found Ledford at 3:10 a.m. about 2,000 feet from the entrance, according to information from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"He told me he was about spent" said Todd Middleton, a state mining inspector who was part of the team that found Ledford. "He was glad to see us and we was glad to see him. He thanked us."

State officials yesterday discussed additional details of the response to the blast.

There are some similarities between the Harlan County disaster and the Sago blast that killed 12 West Virginia miners in January. Both could have been caused by an ignition of methane gas that built up in an unused portion of the mine, for instance.

But the rescue efforts stand in contrast.

Hard lessons learned

The response at Sago sparked criticism, in part because it took much longer for the coal company's designated rescue teams to arrive, and rescuers didn't enter the mine until nearly 11 hours after the blast. The blast killed one miner; 11 others ran out of oxygen.

One key problem at Sago was that for hours after the blast, tests showed levels of carbon monoxide and methane that raised concerns about a fire underground or the potential for another explosion, according to MSHA.

David Dye, acting administrator of the federal agency, told Congress after the Sago blast that inspectors and miners have learned hard lessons about the perils of rushing into mine-accident scenes.

In 2001, Dye said, 12 miners tried to help a co-worker hurt in an Alabama mine blast; all 13 died in a second explosion. And, after a methane explosion killed 15 men at the Scotia mine in Letcher County in 1976, 11 more died 60 hours later while working to restore ventilation.

Ronnie Hampton, supervisor of the Harlan District of the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, said that when rescuers arrived at the Kentucky Darby mine early Saturday, the scene was chaotic, with debris "blown all over the place," lots of gases being drawn out of the mine, and alarms going off.

But tests showed carbon-monoxide and methane levels were low at the mouth of the mine, so state and federal supervisors sent in rescuers. The first team, which included Middleton, MSHA employees Dale Jackson and Bob Rhea, and company employee Mark Sizemore, went into the mine without oxygen masks.

Rescuers used hand-held monitors to keep a constant check on carbon monoxide, methane and oxygen. Any smoke had cleared and it was not hard to see.

"We just kept advancing," said Middleton, a former employee at the mine.

Rescuers had stopped for a minute when one thought he saw a light flicker. They lowered their beams to make sure and saw Ledford signaling them with the light on his hard hat.

'Crawled out of his clothes'

Ledford's brother told the Herald-Leader that Ledford and other miners scrambled to leave the mine after the blast, but that the others turned back. Ledford kept going, losing consciousness at times, at others crawling toward the mouth of the mine until his knees were raw. "He'd about crawled out of his clothes," Hampton said yesterday.

Hampton said Ledford had probably gone about as far as he was able. Ledford, who was treated for burns, has generally declined comment on the blast.

Ledford was disoriented when rescuers brought him out to safety, but told officials there were three more miners behind him. That raised "all kinds of hope" of finding more men alive, Hampton said.

Hampton, a lay minister, said he was very disappointed those hopes were dashed.

"It still bothers me. If it didn't, you need to get out of this business," he said. But saving even one life "makes it all worthwhile."

A second rescue team found Paris Thomas Jr., 53, alone. The bodies of George Petra, 49, and Jimmy Lee, 33, were together; officials declined comment on the location of the bodies of Amon "Cotton" Brock, 51, and Roy Middleton, 35.

Hampton said finding the bodies mostly separated from one another probably meant the miners got disoriented.

Full-time rescue teams

Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, said Kentucky is the only state that has full-time, state-employed mine-rescue teams. Employees of the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing serve on the teams.

All the team members have other jobs with the agency -- Middleton is an inspector, for instance -- but set aside one day a month for rescue training. They simulate accidents and practice the response, including the use of oxygen.

"I work with a class-act group of guys," Middleton said. "These guys put their lives on the line going underground doing this stuff."

Team members are on call at all times. When he got the call at home shortly after the Kentucky Darby blast was reported, Middleton said, "I knew time was precious. I just put my flashers on and rolled with it."

The state has 11 rescue teams in Eastern and Western Kentucky, so members often live close to the mines.

Kentucky has a good system and excellent rescue-team members, said Butch Oldham, a representative of the United Mine Workers of America who works in Kentucky.

There are also many top coal-company teams in Kentucky, but the UMW thinks there is a shortage of rescuers nationwide and that companies should increase the number of rescue teams or members they fund, he said.

Under federal rules, coal companies must have access to two mine-rescue teams, and rescue stations must be within two hours' drive time of any mine. Kentucky rules require a one-hour response time. Companies can keep their own teams, contract with others for coverage or rely on state teams.

MSHA said there are more than 300 rescue teams in the country.

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United States Mine Rescue Association