Alabama Mine Explosion

Thirteen Dead at Blue Creek No. 5

By Mike Ely

Revolutionary Worker #1121, October 7, 2001, posted at

The miners knew there was something wrong at Blue Creek No. 5, as they showed up for work every day and were lowered--down, down, down into the dark shaft of the mine.

This Alabama mine, about 40 miles west of Birmingham, is one of the deepest in the U.S--2,140 feet below the surface. In deep mines like this, methane gas is always a special danger. If the miners turn off their machinery for a moment, and just listen, they can hear the methane hissing and bubbling out as it escapes from the coal face.

Methane is lighter than air and explosive. It drifts up to the ceiling of the coal seam and gathers in pockets and cracks in the rock. If the miners are going to survive, methane must be dispersed and blown out by a continuous vigorous flow of air throughout the mine.

But this summer, over and over, there had been "pops"--mini-explosions --at Blue Creek No. 5. Pockets of gas ignited, flared, but then burned the available methane and died out.

During the years I worked in the mines, I was in a "pop" like that once. The ripper heads of the continuous miner ground deep into the coal seam, and suddenly cut into a chamber on the other side. There was methane there. A brilliant flash lit the work area--like a strobe chasing away the darkness, the steam and the dust. Flames licked back over the equipment towards us, picking up flecks of coal, igniting them in a rush of fire. Heat like an oven flashed on our faces, illuminated our stunned expressions, pressed against us... and then, suddenly, was gone. Death had touched us, and then drawn away. The darkness was back, a few embers glowed on the steel plates of our equipment, and, as we looked at each other in silence, we caught our breaths.

I thought of this moment when I heard terrible news from Brookwood, Alabama. This is what the miners there had experienced, over and over this summer. There had been at least three such pops in Blue Creek No. 5. The memory of those pops kept the miners of No. 5 awake at night. They spoke of their fears to their families.

Every one of those 300 miners in No. 5 mine knew they were in danger. They knew something was wrong with the ventilation. And so did the company.

Shirley Hyche, a miner for 20 years at the Blue Creek, said that when the underground air went off "it was like a little bomb."

The miners had demanded that the owners, Jim Walter Resources, do something. Shirley said: ``They wouldn't listen. They didn't do anything.''

It says something about working class life, about capitalism, that the miners returned anyway, day after day, to be lowered into that shaft to dig the coal.

Many of the workers had traveled far to find work here at Brookwood. Groups of them had moved from the southern tip of West Virginia, from MacDowell County, where the huge complex of U.S. Steel mines shut down in 1986. Many came because they were in their 50s, and needed to work several more years in the mines to get their pensions. They would lose those pensions if they took other kinds of jobs. These workers were trapped, forced to work--despite the danger.

Each one knew that if they quit it would be hard to find another mine that would hire them.

Just a Spark

"There is never a mine blown
skyward now,
But we're buried alive for you."

From the revolutionary song
"We have fed you all for 1000 years"

On Sunday evening, September 23, 32 people were in Blue Creek No. 5. There is no production on Sundays. Only skeleton crews go underground--to man the water pumps, check ventilation, test for gas buildups, to do maintenence on the equipment and the rails. Suddenly, an explosion ripped loose, expanding in a wave of superheated air, rock, and flame.

The company says a rock fall landed on a large battery charger and ignited the gas. But there is no reason to believe any details the company offers about such events. And there are many reasons for them to lie.

This much is known: a spark went off underground in air filled with methane. There were six miners in the area--all were injured by the flame and rock. Three of them made it out of the mine when everyone evacuated.

Immediately, the miners outside discovered that three of their brothers were left below. A rescue team quickly organized. Ten miners climbed into the elevator cage and were lowered down the shaft--risking everything.

The three injured men were in an area more than three miles from the foot of the main shaft--a huge distance to travel on foot under such dangerous conditions. Explosions leave behind carbon monoxide--which is invisible and deadly.

One badly injured miner, Ray Ashworth, was found and successfully brought to the surface.

Then, 45 minutes after the first explosion, a second, even larger explosion ripped through Blue Creek No. 5. It was strong enough to lift dust and lumps of coal up into the air and ignite them--so a fire that started in methane spread to the walls of the mine itself.

The mine tunnels turned into a raging blast furnace. The temperatures underground quickly rose to above 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The passages filled with flames and poisonous gases. The first rescue team never came out of the mine.

New rescue teams went in after them. But after ten hours, the rescue teams were withdrawn. They had recovered only three bodies.

The company flooded the affected areas with 35 million gallons of water on Tuesday, September 25, hoping to suffocate the fires.

The twelve miners trapped below are dead. Ray Ashworth died later in the hospital of his burns.

Across the world, working people face these terrible conditions and disasters--when they enter the earth to enrich the owners. This same week, on September 26, 20 workers, including nine women miners, were crushed in a massive cave-in in eastern India. Little news made it out of the remote tribal district of Jharkhand state--other than the report that rains had weakened the mine roof and caused the inadequate supports to collapse. Last month, on August 8, a methane explosion killed at least 14 miners in western Romania. On July 17, water rushed through a tin mine in Guangxi, China, killing more than 70 miners. And earlier this year, a methane explosion killed nine workers in Ukraine's Donetsk coal fields.

A Known Danger

As they gathered in the union hall of UMWA Local 2368, people spoke bitterly of how the coal company ignored the danger. Relatives cornered reporters to tell the world how the workers had lived in fear of explosion.

Mike Boyd lost his brother, Clarence "Bit" Boyd, in the explosion. He said that for a month, workers had been pointing out the high levels of methane gathering underground. Mike works on methane control at Blue Creek No. 5--using vacuum hoses to remove especially dense concentrations of the gas. He said that during a meeting between union workers and the company, "I told them they were operating on a shoe thread and they were going to get someone blown up down there."

Jackie Carroll said her brother, Junior Adams, had told his daughter that he thought something was going to happen. Junior is among the dead underground.

Even a former mine boss, Jim Layne, came to the miners' union hall to grieve and tell what he knew. Layne retired in 1989, but even back then, he said, "I was told not to pay attention to methane levels."

The No. 5 mine had a major blast in 1993, when four workers were badly burned. The mine was closed temporarily in 1995 because of recurring "hot spots''--dangerous pockets of methane.

The United Mine Workers Union observed a mourning day on Tuesday, September 25, for their lost brothers.

Meanwhile, the company spokesmen have refused to make any comment on the disaster. They have said publicly, however, that they plan to reopen Blue Creek No. 5.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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