State report blames deadly Kentucky mine blast on leaky gas, open-flame torch
PIKEVILLE, Ky. – Human error – bringing a torch near a poorly built protective seal – sparked an explosion in an eastern Kentucky coal mine that killed five men, state investigators conclude in a report released Friday.But after months of interviews and sifting through evidence, state officials still don’t know who authorized the use of the torch in the first place, or why.The protective seal, which should have blocked out naturally occurring methane, was “poorly constructed” and failed to meet federal guidelines, according to an investigation report released by the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.The torch ignited the leaking methane May 20 as two miners were cutting away metal straps that intersected the top of the seal and were used as underground roof supports. They died in the blast; three others died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation while trying to escape.The explosion at the Kentucky Darby No. 1 Mine was so powerful it broke mirrors on vehicles parked outside.The report also said mine foreman Amon Brock and maintenance worker Jimmy Lee shouldn’t have been allowed to use a torch at the site because ventilation current passed through the area on its way to the surface.”The question that cannot be answered at this point in time is what was the impetus for someone going in and cutting the strap (with the torch),” said Susan Bush, commissioner of the state Department for Natural Resources.According to witness testimony, Brock had said he had to make repairs to the area before an inspector from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration returned to the site two days later.MSHA, which is conducting its own investigation into the blast, declined to let state investigators interview inspector Stanley Sturgill. “MSHA asked all the questions it believed relevant during its interviews,” agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot said.State investigators reviewed Sturgill’s responses Friday. They found nothing that would change their report and decided not to reopen their investigation, said Mark York, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.Tony Oppegard, an attorney representing four of the victims’ families, said the miners’ widows had hoped to learn who ordered Brock and Lee to repair the straps.The report “didn’t bring any peace at all. I think it was very difficult for all of them,” Oppegard said Friday. “There was anger and sadness.”The mine was sealed off and abandoned Nov. 10, federal authorities have said.A lawyer for Ralph Napier, an owner of mine operator Kentucky Darby LLC, called the state’s report incomplete.”We disagree with many aspects of the report. But I don’t want to get into specifics right now,” attorney Kent Hendrickson said. “There’s a more complete MSHA federal report to follow.”A telephone number for John D. North, co-owner of the mine, could not be found.The federal report is expected by March, Fillpot said.—On the Net:State Office of Mine Safety and Licensing: http://www.omsl.ky.gov.Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration: http://www.msha.gov
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