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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Brookwood to remember miners lost in 2001 explosion

Brookwood to remember miners lost in 2001 explosion

Yellow ribbons wave at Jim Walter Resources Blue Creek No. 5 Mine in 2003 in remembrance of the 13 miners killed on Sept. 23, 2001. The miners who died on Sept. 23, 2001, were: Gaston E. Adams Jr., Raymond F. Ashworth, Nelson Banks Jr., David L. Blevins, Clarence H. Boyd, Wendell R. Johnson, John W. Knox, Dennis R. Mobley, Charles J. Nail, Sammy Joe Riggs, Charles E. Smith, Joseph P. Sorah and Terry M. Stewart.
By James T. McConatha Special to The Tuscaloosa News
Published: Thursday, September 23, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 11:27 p.m.
BROOKWOOD | Tammy Hutchins still remembers the day that 13 miners died in explosions at Jim Walter Resources Blue Creek No. 5 Mine in 2001. It was a Sunday evening, Sept. 23, and her husband, the Rev. Vic Hutchins of West Brookwood Church, was at the pulpit.

Memorial planned today
Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, will be the guest speaker today at the ninth annual miners' memorial service in Brookwood.
The service is open to the public.
The service will remember the 13 miners who died in a 2001 underground coal mine explosion at Jim Walter Resources Blue Creek No. 5 Mine in Brookwood.
The Rev. Gary Youngblood will officiate the service, which will be at the Miners' Memorial Monument at West Brookwood Church, 12882 Lock 17 Road, Brookwood.
Pre-service music will begin at 4 p.m. The memorial service will start at
5 p.m.
“(Vic) just stopped,” Tammy Hutchins said. “He just sort of looked down and turned his page, and we all just looked at each other across the congregation. Nobody said anything. We just knew something (had happened).”
Seconds later, the sirens of rescue vehicles blared outside the church. Not far from the parking lot, an explosion had torn through the No. 5 mine.
The final investigation report, released on Dec. 11, 2002, indicated that the initial explosion was caused by falling debris that had damaged a battery at a charging station in section four of the No. 5 mine. Four miners were injured. One of them, Gaston Adams Jr., could not be moved.
Noble Lynn began working in the No. 5 mine in 1997. He recalls telling his wife about the camaraderie there shortly after transferring in.
“(It was) the best mine I'd ever worked at,” Lynn said. “There was a strong bond there between all of us.”
Jim Walter Resources operates the deepest mines in North America, reaching down more than 2,000 vertical feet. The miners spend a lot of time together.
“As a coal miner, there is nothing in your life that's personal anymore,” said Jeremy Eaton, a fourth-generation coal miner who was born and raised in Brookwood. “It's a family. They look out for one another.”
After the initial explosion, several of the miners began rescue efforts. 


“When one of those people (that you care about) gets hurt or needs help, all you think about is going back to them, going to get them,” said James Blankenship, president of the United Mine Workers of America, local chapter 2245 in Brookwood. “That's what those men did.”
In the 55 minutes that followed the first explosion, 12 miners made their way through the tunnels to section four in a rescue effort. The air was thick with coal dust and dirt, and visibility was extremely low. The ventilation systems in section four had been damaged by the first explosion, allowing highly flammable methane gas to accumulate in the area. At about 6:15 p.m. a second explosion tore through No. 5.
The No. 5 mine, like the other mines at Jim Walter Resources, is constructed with a block light system for each section. The system controls traffic in and out by means of light signals and track switches. Power to operate these systems is transferred by a cable hung alongside the track when a photocell is activated by a miner at either end of the section.
After the first explosion, the cable in Section 4 had come down and been damaged as traffic moved along the tracks. The accumulation of methane and coal dust made the air in Section 4 highly flammable, and a single spark from the block light system would have ignited it.
According to the final investigation report, the block light system is presumed to have caused the second explosion. When the dust settled and heads were counted, 13 miners were missing.
“It's an honor to be a coal miner,” Blankenship said. “To lose a miner hurts. We're all family in the coal mines. We all live that life and we all know that it's dangerous.”


Rescue efforts immediately following the second explosion extracted miner Raymond Ashworth and located the bodies of three others. Ashworth died the next day. The morning of Sept. 24, it was determined that the remaining nine had been fatally injured. Their bodies were not recovered until Nov. 8.


The investigation by the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Jim Walter Resources for failure to follow federal safety standards and for poor emergency management, but Dennis Hall, director of public relations for Jim Walter Resources, said the issue was much more complex.
“MSHA writes the rules and regulations. They inspect their rules and regulations, and they set the fines. If you'll read (the final rule from the judge) you'll see where MSHA made some mistakes,” Hall said. “Every mine is different and they have different circumstances. It was a terrible, terrible accident. And that's what people need to remember. It was an accident.”

The No. 5 mine is now closed.
Since 2001, MHSA records indicate that six other fatalities have occurred at Jim Walter Resources' mines.
“Every little thing that you can possibly do to improve your odds of surviving that shift, that's what you do,” Lynn said. “Ninety-eight percent is the good Lord watching over you, one percent is fate, and that other one percent is everything that you've done.”
Thomas Wilson, a safety inspector for the United Mine Workers, said, it's important to remember the tragedy of Sept. 23, 2001.
“(We remember) because we don't want these accidents to ever occur again,” he said.
Jim Walter Resources erected a memorial to the 13 miners in 2002.


On the lawn outside of West Brookwood Church, a small brick pathway leads out from the parking lot. At the end, flanked by evergreens, a glossy headstone bears the names of each miner who died that day. 

“The memorial is a tribute to their lives,” Blankenship said. “They are heroes. It's just as if they took a gun and went overseas. They gave their lives for a fallen brother.”
Every year on Sept. 23, a memorial service is held on the church lawn.
Wilson said that the service serves as a reunion for some of the attendees. After the accident, many of the widows and other family members who were left behind moved away. The gathering gives families time for fellowship.
At the close of the service, a candle-light ceremony will be held. Thirteen miners will don cap-lights, like the ones miners work in every day. They turn the lights out one by one and lay evergreen branches on the monument.
The miners have a sense of pride about the work they do, and they do not take the dangerous aspects of their work lightly.
“We furnish over 50 percent of the electricity that keeps these lights burning,” Blankenship said. “It's cheap power and it's because of the coal fields.”
“Coal mining gets in your blood. Coal dust gets in your lungs. It's just part of your body,” he said.





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