After the September 2001 disaster, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), to which the miners belonged, called a memorial day to pay tribute to the workers killed. All union mines in the state shut down that day. More than 1,500 people attended a memorial service for the 13 miners. At a press conference the day before, UMWA president Cecil Roberts called for a vigorous investigation of the cause of the explosions.
Speaking at the December 11 press conference, the assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, David Lauriski, said the report cites Jim Walter Resources with 27 violations, including "eight violations directly contributing to the explosion."
Among the major violations cited by MSHA were company failure to adequately support the mine roof, inadequate rock dusting, which suppresses coal dust, and failure to initiate evacuation procedures immediately after the first of two explosions.
On September 23 of last year, four miners were working in the No. 4 section of the mine. Three of them were building roof supports to help fortify deteriorating roof conditions. A couple of hours into the evening shift, the roof fell in, burying a battery-charging station used to recharge a piece of equipment called a scoop.
The felled rock from the roof released a quantity of explosive methane gas that came in contact with a spark from the damaged battery. This caused an explosion that extended 200 feet in one direction and 500 feet in the other, injuring three of the miners and rendering one of them immobile. Those who could walk sought help.
The initial explosion burst apart several ventilation controls. This "short circuited" ventilation, meaning it interrupted the proper flow of air through the mines necessary to flush away and prevent accumulation of methane and gaseous hazards. The result: more methane began to build up. Electrical power to No. 4 section was cut off, as is standard during a fire or explosion. But the deadly mixture of gas reached the end of No. 4 section and a block light (similar to a traffic light), which was hooked in to a separate power source.
While miners tried to alert others, the foreman called outside to the surface. Lauriski told reporters at the press conference that the foreman underground knew an explosion had occurred, and relayed that fact to the bosses outside. In a follow-up question, a reporter asked, "So you are saying that the management knew an actual explosion had occurred and did not communicate that fact to miners underground?" Lauriski’s response was "Yes, that is correct."
After the first explosion, more workers were sent by the company to the No. 4 section in the mine to fight what many were told was a fire. As the workers converged at the No. 4 section, a second, massive explosion was triggered. This blast, believed to have started when methane came in contact with the block light, was given "new life" by the fine coal dust raised into the air, a summary of the report stated.
That second explosion caused 12 of the 13 deaths, according to the MSHA report.
The lack of attention to rock dusting and roof control by the mine bosses are common in underground mines throughout Alabama and across the country. A number of workers at the mine, including some of those killed in the explosion, had warned and pleaded with the company about the rock dusting and other safety questions. In the case of the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 mine, one of the gassiest mines in the country and the deepest in the United States, the refusal to follow federal safety regulations proved fatal.
According to the MSHA report, at the time of the accident 31 citations throughout the mine had not been terminated. Corrections of the problems were due prior to the accident. Lauriski said the lack of rock dusting "was a serious violation and a critical factor in the force of the explosion." Government figures show the Jim Walter mine owners have a record of disregard for the safety of miners. Between 1995 and 2001 the company was issued 2,987 safety violations and action orders from MSHA, and fines of $594,276.
The families of 10 of the miners killed in the explosions have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Jim Walter Resources. Jimmy King, who represents six of the families, told the Tuscaloosa News on December 14, "To get the attention of the companies involved in this, it’ll take $350 million or maybe half a billion dollars. It’s big business, and when you deal with big business, you don’t get their attention by a fine. They’ll pay the fine and they’ll keep killing people."
The 27 citations against the company could carry a total maximum fine of $1.5 million.
Kyle Parks, spokesperson for Walter Industries, parent company of JWR, said the bosses "believe our mines are safe and in compliance with all applicable regulations." As for MSHA’s findings against the company, Kyle stated, "We’re going to give them more information we hope will cause them to come to a different conclusion."
Brian Taylor is a member of the UMWA and an underground coal miner at the Oak Grove Mine in Alabama.