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
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.