Growing Up in the Coalfields: The South Mountain Mine Explosion

After the first year or so my father finally landed a job working in the mines, this time working for Ridley Elkin’s coal company. When he applied he’d hoped to work at the South Mountain No. 3 mine since it had the highest coal, but, as fate would have it, he was sent up the road to their Plowboy #4 mines. Less than a month later, on the cold morning of December 7, 1992, an explosion occurred at South Mountain No.3. It was the first explosion to rock the mining communities of Southwest Virginia since the explosion at McClure #1  which killed 7 men in June of 1983.

While we were getting ready for school that morning my mother received a call. She went in and woke my father to tell him the news. There was no communication with the men inside and the local news showed smoke billowing from the portals. We still held hope that the men working the # 1 Left section were still alive, including the father of one of my schoolmates who had been there less than 6 months. Despite the emotional turmoil occuring just down the road my dad still had to report to work at Plowboy #4.   To this day he still recalls passing by the entrance to the South Mountain No.3 mine and seeing it lit up at night with all of the news crews swarming the area. “It was the hardest thing I think I ever had to do,” he told me solemnly, “go to work knowing them boys was still in that mine.”
Two and half days later all hope was lost when mine rescue teams reached the section. The lives of eight men had been lost.
Claude D. Strugill       
Palmer E. Sturgill       
Mike D. Mullins                     
Brian Owens  
James E. “Garr” Mullins                    
David K. Carlton                     
Danny R. Gentry         
Norman D. Vanover

Plowboy # 4 didn’t shut down despite the loss of lives, nor the fact a section of their mine was located directly overtop of the South Mountain Mine which had just exploded. When holes were being drilled down to test the air in the South Mountain Mine during the rescue efforts, the drills punched through sealed sections of Plowboy #4, creating a dangerous situation for the miners working there. Ridley Elkins owner of both mines kept Plowboy running. Once the men at South Mountain were found Ridley told the miners at Plowboy who had been most concerned about the drilling to “Go home until them boys is buried.” speaking in reference to the men who did not survive the South Mountain explosion. Ridley didn’t even shut down for the funerals.
 
The following investigation revealed the methane monitor on the continuous miner , a device meant to shut down the miner in the case methane levels increased to explosive levels, had been bypassed to speed production. It was also found that a roof fall in the bleeder entries had prevented proper ventilation of the section, allowing methane to reach dangerous levels. The fall in the bleeder areas would have been found if the mine officials followed regulations and the foreman had completed weekly inspections of those entries. Instead, to save time, or just out of pure laziness, the bleeders hadn’t been inspected for weeks. These were major violations and the mine should not have been allowed to operate under the circumstances. Still the majority of blame fell away from the company officials and the previously performed half assed State and Federal mine inspections. Investigators supposedly “found” cigarette lighters and cigarettes in one of the fallen miner’s dinner buckets. Despite the failures of the system meant to prevent hazardous conditions in the mine the major fault fell to the most probable end ignition source. Many people close to the fallen miners and those who worked for Ridley’s mining operations suspect the evidence was planted to place blame on someone who could not defend themself.
Many believe the coal company owner and mine officials should have gotten life in prison, along with some of the Federal and State mine inspectors who failed to enforce regulations meant to keep such tragedies from happening. In the end Ridley Elkins only spent 6 months in jail and his company was fined $2,000,000, of which $900,000 was earmarked to go to the families of the fallen miners. Several years later the widows of the fallen miners filed a lawsuit against the Mine Safety and Health Administration for not performing their duty. The story made the papers when a federal judge ruled it was solely the mine owner’s fault, yet no further actions were taken against him following that ruling. Ridley Elkins still enjoys life today in Clintwood, Virginia.
Dad and several other men quit Plowboy not long after the explosion and some men never went back to work in the mines. It wouldn’t keep my father out though. Running coal is in his blood.
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11 thoughts on “Growing Up in the Coalfields: The South Mountain Mine Explosion

  1. I remember that December morning in 1992 so well. I lived on the Guest River Rd, and felt the explosion. I stood on my porch and watched the emergency vehicles zoom past. One of the rescue workers stopped at my house and filled water barrels for drinking water from my outdoor faucet. Thank you for all that information about the bleeders – none of that was available to the general public at the time, all we heard about was the cigarretts, and I always wondered if that was a put-up.

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  2. To say I was surprised to receive a comment from someone who felt the explosion would be an understatement. I couldn't imagine having been so close to the tragedy. Much of the information I obtained was through my father and the local news media.

    In 1999 I took my wife (who is from Indiana) to the old mine site. I expected to find a small shrine or some sort of memorial for the fallen men. There was nothing but reclaimed mine land. I began crying as we left. I only knew Mr. Vanover from when I visited my friend’s house. Still, it hit home and I knew my dad could have easily been sent to work at South Mountain No. 3 like he wanted rather than Plowboy No.4.

    As far as the cigarettes go, my father overheard a man who spoke with one of the investigators say the lighter(s) they found had fell down beside the scoop batteries and was caked in rock dust. His exact words, “It could have been there for months and fallen down in there when the scoop was parked outside.”

    Also, here is a link to the US Mine Rescue Associations summary of the accident which mentions the bleeders:

    http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/southmountain.htm

    There are also maps of the investigation on the DMME website, some of which show the location of all the evidence found on the #1 Left Section. It is sobering to say the least…

    http://www.dmme.virginia.gov/DM/documents/accident-fatality.shtml

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  3. Mr. Mullens, we just discovered your blog and love it. Thank you for your courage – it is very hard to stand up to these interests.

    Do you know about the tree sit we are staging on Bee Tree? Read more at rampscampaign.org

    writing in solidarity,
    Eli

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  4. I certainly do Elias. I was still working in the coal mines when the last trees sit occurred (the one which was documented in Jordan Freeman's “Low Coal”). I hadn't become part of the movement to stop mountain top removal at the time, but I heard about the tree sit when it was brought up in a morning “safety” talk at the mine. Some of the men joked around saying they needed to go “squirrel hunting” in West Virginia, or “I betchya they'd come down pretty fast if you laid a chainsaw to the tree they's in”.
    It is sad that people have to resort to such tactics to stop a process which has been proven time and again to damage the health and welfare of our friends and family. It was the same when the unions were formed to end being paid in script and working in deplorable conditions. Asking the wealthy nicely to sacrifice their profits for the greater good has never seemed to work, actions have to be taken.

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  5. There was one miner seriously injured, Kevin Fleming a beltman who was working outby at a belt drive. He was seriously burned during the explosion but was able to get out on his own. The loader operator working outside took him to the hospital. I heard it said that Mr. Fleming was thrown quite a ways by the explosion.

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  6. I just happened to run across this blog. My dad was Mike Mullins. He was killed that day. This was very well written and true. Our lives changed that day. And sometimes I think my dad and the others have been forgotten. Thank you Mr Mullins for your accurate accounts!!

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  7. They will never be forgotten. When Mickey was laid to rest I stepped over to your father's grave and saw his picture. Several of us did, he will not be forgotten. I was a lot younger than your father when he passed away so I never knew him personally, but it doesn't matter, our families have know each other for a long time.

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  8. Hay nick my name is Elliot O'QUinn i work at Deep Mine #26 in clntwood VA im 23 years old im a 3rd generation of coal miner but i never really wonted to but had to to support my wife and little boy i support every thing you do and are doing and stand for what is wright thank you

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  9. Elliot my heart's with you and thank you for your support. It's good to know you have an open mind and understand what's going on. You do what you have to do to make it right now, but don't let them abuse you. Deep Mine #26 was where I worked for close to three years before our lives changed and we began seeing things differently. There's a culture there that's hard to describe but it works well to suck the life out of you. You can work as hard or harder than any man and if one low life suck goes to a boss and says you're being lazy they'll believe that person before giving you the benefit of the bout. Save your money pay off your debts (if you have any) and get out of there. It's not worth it in the end. We learned that the best thing we could have ever done for our kids was to get them away from the coalfields and into an area with better schools. We have to pinch pennies but it's worth it for them. Take care of yourself, and we're praying for you.

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  10. Although it it has been many years since this tragic event occured it has never left me and my family.This time of year is very hard because the memories return in great detail. I was in the first car that responded to the scene, I also spent the entire time at the minesite and spent the final night keeping the media away from the bodies at Sturgill funeral home in Coeburn. Mere words cannot say what needs to be said to everyone that was touched by this tragedy, but my hope is that God grants grants each and every one of you that were touched by this tragic day thepeace and confort you so richly deserve.

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