Shortly before 11:00 p.m. on June 8, 1979, a scheduled blast was initiated in the Belle Isle Mine, a salt mine. About ten minutes later a gas explosion occurred, sending intensely hot hurricane-like winds throughout the mine. These gales blew out ventilation controls, including stoppings and doors, and upended trucks and other heavy machinery. Standing at the surface when the explosion occurred, a general mine foreman compared the explosion's sound to that of a dozen freight trains.
Twenty-two miners were underground when the explosion occurred. One group of six miners successfully dialed the surface with a make-shift telephone improvised from two damaged telephones.
Surface workers responded by clearing obstructions from a nearby shaft, and then sending down a mancage, which hoisted the miners to safety. Meanwhile, another group of seventeen miners spent about an hour inching toward a shaft through pitch-dark, intensely hot, debris-filled corridors.
Upon reaching the shaft the survivors banged on its gate, signaling their location to surface workers. Surface workers then freed the shaft's mancage, which had been lodged in the headframe by the explosion's concussive winds, and sent it down to the survivors.
By 2:45 p.m. the stranded miners were lifted to safety. Five other miners were killed in the explosion.
MSHA investigators determined that the scheduled, initial blast had triggered a massive "outburst" of about 15,750 tons of broken salt and flammable gases. Included in these gases were methane and minute quantities of other hydrocarbons, which were ignited by electric arcs, sparks, or burning electric cable insulation.
MSHA identified the causes of the disaster as a general lack of recognition by both MSHA and cargill of the seriousness of the "blow-out" phenomenon, and a lack of recognition of gas problems at Belle Isle - despite a long-standing understanding that positioning mine openings in salt structures that entrained high-pressure gases could trigger outbursts of noteworthy size at Belle Isle and neighboring salt mines.
Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States - Volume III
4 Bodies Located in Mine
Galveston Daily News, Texas
June 10, 1979
Calumet, La. (UPI) -- Rescue workers used gas masks Saturday to search for five victims of an explosion 1,200 feet below ground in the gas-filled, smoky caverns of a darkened salt mine with a long history of death and destruction.
Four bodies had been located by Saturday afternoon. The search continued for a fifth victim "with the hope that he might be found alive," a spokesman for Cargill Inc. said.
The blast occurred just before midnight Friday at the Belle Isle Salt Mine -- ironically, as workers were holding a safety meeting.
Seventeen other miners were injured. Four of them -- three men and one woman -- were hospitalized at Franklin Foundation Hospital, two in guarded condition and two in fair condition. The other 13 were treated and released.
Survivors said the explosion came suddenly.
"We were talking about safety, about how they hadn't had a major accident in two or three years," said Prentis Shaw, Jr., one of those hospitalized. "That's when we heard the wind coming out. It was slow and then it got real fast. The wind was whipping everything around."
"It was something like a hurricane," he said.
Shaw said he was with 10 other workers in a truck waiting to leave when the explosion occurred. The half-mile wide area filled with smoke and salt, he said, and darkened. The miners used the hats on their lights to make their way to the shaft, where cool, fresh air was rushing in.
"We sat there are waited for them to come down and get us, about an hour and half," said Shaw. "It might not have been that long -- I believe I went to sleep."
Another survivor described the noise the explosion made.
"It was just a little sound from the back of the mine and then everything started shaking," said Joseph Boutte, 25, of Jeanerette, La. "Everything came toward us like a dust storm."
The Belle Isle salt mine, located on a marshland island 90 miles southwest of New Orleans near the Gulf of Mexico, has killed dozens of persons in its long history.
In March 1968, 21 miners died in a flash fire that filled most of the cavern. Dozens of miners and their pack mules were buried alive in the mine in the late 1800s by an avalanche of salt. Those bodies never were recovered. (Editorís note: Nothing can be found related to this accident in the late 1800s.)
Three bodies were found shortly before noon Saturday in the dark, smoky, gas-filled cavern. The fourth was found about 2 p.m.
The dead were identified as Richard Collins, 31, of Patterson, La.; Donald Mayon, 38, of Baldwin, La.; Herman Zimmerman, 48, of Franklin, La., and Amedee Oliver, 23, of Jeanerette, La.
Those hospitalized were identified as Prentis Shaw, Jr., 23, of Franklin, La.; Alton J. Oppenheimer, 49, of Jeanerette; Jason Mayon, 23, of Franklin, and Mrs. Peggy Johnson Blaine, 31, of New Iberia, La.