On the cold morning of December 7, 1992, an explosion occurred at South Mountain No.3 not far from Norton, Virginia. It was the first explosion to rock the mining communities of Southwest Virginia since the explosion at McClure #1 in 1983.
|The Milwaukee Journal – December 7, 1992|
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 an explosion at the South Mountain mine and there was no communication with the men inside. It was the mine just down the road from where he worked, owned by the same man. My father came out of the bedroom, dressed and ready, but for what, he did not know. His face was grim. My father went to the mine site to see if he could help, but there was not much he or anyone else could do. When he returned, he told us how the explosion was so massive it had thrown conveyor belts out of the mine and hung them over power lines, and that a drink machine was blown across the hollow and had landed on the opposing hillside.
As the day progressed, television crews from the Tri-Cities and newspaper reporters from all over the nation gathered in and the rest of the world became informed. Despite the images of 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 working there less than 6 months.
Even with the emotional turmoil occurring just down the road, miners, including my father, were still required to report to work at Plowboy #4, the sister mine to South Mountain and owned by the same man, Ridley Elkins. To this day my dad still recalls passing by the entrance to the South Mountain mine, seeing it lit up at night with emergency personnel and news crews swarming the area. “It was the hardest thing I think I ever had to do,” he once told me solemnly. “Go to work knowing them boys was still trapped in that mine.”
Plowboy # 4 didn’t shut down despite the loss of lives, nor the fact that the seam they were mining was directly over top of the Southmountain 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 mine, creating a dangerous situation for the miners working there. The mine owner kept Plowboy running, kept it producing coal, kept his mind on profits. Some miners, including my father, protested the mine running while the rescue efforts were still underway. They knew it was wrong to keep working while their friends could be trapped and suffering following the explosion—knowing the family of those miners were still awaiting word, exhausted with worry, clinging desperately to dwindling hope.
Once the men at South Mountain were found to have perished, Ridley told the miners at Plowboy who had raised their voices, “Just go home until them boys is buried.” Ridley only gave those few men time off to attend the funerals. He kept running Plowboy #4, keeping his profits rolling in.
- Improperly conducted weekly examinations for the No. 3 Mine and the 001 section on November 21-30, 1992. The certified examiner failed to examine the bleeder system in its entirety due to adverse roof conditions.
- An inadequately conducted smoking search program. Smoking material was found with three of the victims, and a lunch container was found to contain two full packs of cigarettes and two cigarette lighters.
- Failure to conduct a thorough preshift examination on the 001 section between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on December 6, 1992, for the oncoming midnight shift on the 1 Left 001 section.
- Improperly placed and maintained ventilation control devices.
- Failure to maintain the required incombustible content of the mine dust.
- Failure to follow the approved ventilation plan in the bleeder system inby No. 1 Left 001 section.
- Failure to provide the necessary volume and velocity of air in the 1 Left 001 section.
- Failure to conduct weekly examinations of the ventilation system at least every seven days.
But there was more to it than that.
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 (tampered with) to speed production. This, along with the failure of mine management, and some believe mine inspectors, to properly examine the ventilation systems as mandated by law, led to ventilation problems allowing methane to reach dangerously explosive levels. To save money on materials and labor, mine management had even failed to see that coal dust accumulations were kept in check by applying rock dust, an inert lime stone powder meant to stifle coal dust’s ability to ignite when in the air, to all areas of the mine.
Following the explosion, a great deal of controversy arose around whether state and federal mine inspectors had done their jobs, especially with regard to whether or not inspectors had physically gone into the mine to inspect mine ventilation, safety equipment, coal dust accumulation, and rock dust application. It had often been rumored that inspectors would just sit out in the office trailer of the mine site, shooting the breeze with mine managers, and in some cases, even accepting “gifts” from small coal company operators.
For once, community members hoped that the defunct system of mine safety regulation would be seen for what it truly was, and, maybe, just maybe, the system would be fixed. With the possibility that mine inspectors and mine officials were facing time in prison due to their failures to uphold mine safety laws, people speculated that they scrambled to find ways to clear their names, or at least lessen the backlash they would receive for their failures to protect the lives of eight men—men whose families would never truly recover from the loss of their loved ones.
During the investigation, officials supposedly “found” cigarette lighters and cigarettes in one of the fallen miner’s dinner buckets. They had a “cause,” a “direct reason” for the explosion that would take attention away from the largest causes of the explosion—the bypassed methane detector, the mine ventilation that was not kept in accordance with the law, and failures to keep coal dust under control by applying rock dust.
People within the community, including other miners who worked for Ridley’s mining operations, suspected the cigarettes and lighters were planted to place blame on men who could not defend themselves. Family and friends of the fallen miners were outraged at the allegations.
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 exonerated the MSHA officials, stating the accident was a result of the mine owner’s failure to maintain safe working conditions, yet no further actions were taken against Ridley following that ruling. Ridley Elkins still enjoys life today in Clintwood, Virginia.