Mine disaster kills area man The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, PA)
By Randy Griffith, and Matthew Epstein January 23, 2003
Cameron, W.Va. -– Three miners for a Cambria County company – including a 23-year-old Colver, Pa., man – were killed early yesterday when methane gas exploded in the air shaft they were digging. Harry P. Roush III was identified as one of those killed in the 1 a.m. accident that also injured three others, two seriously.
None of the other dead or wounded was from the Johnstown area.
The employees of Central Cambria Drilling Co. of 173 Municipal Lane near Ebensburg had been digging a 25-foot-wide shaft and were about 60 feet from the mine, officials said.
McElroy Mining Co. officials made no statements at the site, and an employee ordered reporters off company property. The mine is run by Consol Energy Inc.
Chief Deputy Pat Mull of the Marshall County Sheriff's office said the six men apparently were cutting a door in the side of the air shaft, more than 900 feet below the surface.
It was not clear what ignited the methane, which occurs naturally around coal seams.
"They tell me methane is worse when it's cold," Mull said in a telephone interview. "The barometer drops, and the gas leaches out more because there is less pressure." West Virginia state Rep. Ken Tucker, whose district includes the air shaft, said a gas pocket was to blame after a visit to the site.
"It's my understanding that there was a gas pocket in the No. 2 water ring," he said in an interview here.
The ring is a 3-foot cut into the wall that keeps water from running down the shaft walls and causing damage, he said.
"A full-blown federal investigation" will begin today, he promised after speaking with company officials.
New air shafts are sunk as an area is mined out so operations can switch to another area.
Mull said deputies Brent Wharry and Steve Cook were among the first on the scene. They found Aaron Meyer, 28, of Moundsville, W.Va., outside the shaft. He told them two injured men were inside.
When Cameron Volunteer Fire Department arrived, the officer in charge would not send rescuers down the shaft because they were not trained in mine rescue, Mull said.
Wharry and Cook didn't see it that way.
"Wharry said, 'If you aren't going, I am,' " Mull said,
Meyer agreed to lead the rescue party, and the three enlisted paramedic Jack Cain to go along.
"The two deputies don't think they did anything out of the ordinary, but I feel they went above and beyond," Mull said. "And to think that Meyer went back into a place where he was in an explosion."
"Nobody would get the guys out, so we had to jump in," Wharry told The Associated Press. "We just did what we do every day. This one is just blown out of proportion."
The rescuers clambered into an oversized bucket attached to a crane, which lowered them to the injured miners.
The four brought out Benjamin Bair, 23, and Richard Brumley, 51. They were transported to Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital. Addresses of the injured victims were not available, but the elder Roush said they were not from this area.
Bair is listed in critical condition with second-degree burns and multiple fractures. Brumley was in serious condition with second-degree burns, puncture wounds and a concussion, Dr. Alain Corcos of Mercy Hospital told The Associated Press.
Meyer was released from the hospital later in the day, said his grandfather, Charles Meyer, 78, who lives in the home closest to the accident site.
"He's out of the hospital now, so he's all right," the elder Meyer said in an interview at his home. "Just a little burns on his face and neck."
The others killed were identified as David Abel, 47, of Belmont, Ohio, and Richard E. Mount, 37, of Shadyside, Ohio.
United Mine Workers of America officials said Central Cambria Drilling is non-union and that UMW safety personnel were not being allowed yesterday on the site.
Mine shaft work is one of the most dangerous aspects of the industry, said UMW official Dan Kane.
"Shaft workers have a tough job," said Kane in a telephone interview from his office in Indiana, Pa.
"If there's a more difficult or dirty job, I'm not aware of it. Shaft work is the most dangerous job I know of, because you're exposed to the elements and extreme conditions," said Kane, who did shaft work early in his coal mining career.
Kane, who lives in Ebensburg not far from drilling company headquarters, said shaft workers are always on the lookout for danger.
"You can't let your guard down for a second. In a shaft you're not always used to looking for methane, but you can hit it at any time," he said.
The air shaft was being drilled in a rural area outside Cameron, a small community of 1,200 in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle.
A solitary cow wandered yesterday afternoon in the narrow road to the site, which otherwise was almost deserted.
Central Cambria Drilling employees mostly stayed inside their trailer on the cold day.
"This is a typical construction project that happens every few years," Thomas Hoffman, vice president of investor and public relations for the Pittsburgh-area Consol Energy, said by telephone yesterday.
"They were putting in a new air shaft in advance of mining."
"They were down about 1,000 feet," Hoffman said from his office in Upper St. Clair, Allegheny County.
The cause of the explosion remains under investigation.
Explosives are used to break up rock and acetylene torches are used in the shaft work. The shaft, which will be 1,060 feet, basically is a vertical tube 24 feet in diameter that allows air in and out of the mine. Hoffman explained that mining in the new area would not begin until the shaft was in place.
Hoffman said sporadic work on the air shaft began last year. Such a project takes several months.
Terry Farley of the state office of Miners' Health Safety and Training told The Associated Press an investigation was planned today by state and federal officials, along with representatives of Consol Energy.
The McElroy mine, which employs about 400 people, produces coal from a seam that is known to release methane, Farley said.
The mine was not affected by the explosion and operations continued yesterday.
The deaths are the first mine-related fatalities in West Virginia this year, Farley said. The state had six mining deaths in 2002.
Staff writers Susan Evans and Jeff McCready contributed to this story.
Company beset by mishaps
Tribune-Democrat Northern Cambria Bureau
By Susan Evans
January 24, 2003
EBENSBURG – Central Cambria Drilling Co. of Ebensburg has been bedeviled since 2001 by 11 other accidents at the same mine that claimed the lives of three men Wednesday.
The history of accidents in Cameron, W.Va. – on top of the fatalities – are raising renewed concerns about mine conditions by union and safety officials.
The West Virginia mine blast that killed two Ohio men and a young man from Colver following in his father's footsteps was the company's first fatal accident since 1995, say federal records.
Meanwhile, experts have confirmed that the explosion was caused by the detonation of methane gas 940 feet underground.
"The physical evidence tells us that," said Doug Conaway, director of West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
What investigators don't know is if the workers, employed by Central Cambria Drilling, were monitoring for the buildup of explosive gases as required by law.
"What they were supposed to do is monitor the air with a handheld gas detector," Conaway said. He wasn't sure if they did.
Investigators have yet to interview the injured workers.
The workers were drilling an air shaft that would eventually circulate air in and out of Consol's planned expansion of the McElroy Inc. mine.
The 24-foot diameter shaft was started about a year ago, but construction was temporarily halted when the McElroy operation was idled for several months because of weak demand for coal.
Crews returned in September and routinely used dynamite and acetylene torches on the project, state officials have said.
Conaway said investigators found oxygen and acetylene tanks at the bottom of the shaft. Investigators could not immediately tell if the equipment was in use at the time of the explosion.
The workers were taking apart concrete forms when the explosion occurred, he said. To build the shaft, dynamite is used to break up the rock. Once the debris is removed, workers line the shaft wall with concrete.
Employees at the drilling company, 173 Municipal Road, Cambria Township, remain tight-lipped yesterday in the aftermath of the deadly explosion.
Killed were Harry "Buzzy" Roush III, 23, of the Cambria Township village of Colver, and two men from Ohio. Three workers were injured.
Roush's father works for the same company, but wasn't in the shaft that night.
Office workers who answered the phone said they didn't know when owner Jack Williamson would return to the Ebensburg area.
They said they didn't know how he could be reached, or whether he would issue any statement on the accident.
Also yesterday, United Mine Workers of America safety representatives were still banned from the site, which they say signals a dangerous trend in coal mining safety.
Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy owns a number of union mines, including McElroy, said Dan Kane, UMWA international executive board member.
Central Cambria used to be a union company, but isn't now, Kane said in a telephone interview from UMWA district headquarters in Indiana, Pa.
"We were ready to go to the site because it's a union mine, but they don't want to see us in there because the accident involved a non-union contractor," he said.
"There have been a number of stories about mine safety recently that are very troubling. The number of fatalities is going down, but given the decreased number of miners, it's not going down the way it should be. In fact, it's even worse now, proportionately," he said.
The deaths were West Virginia's first mine-related fatalities of the year – the state had six last year.
From 1995 to 2003, Central Cambria Drilling Co. had 43 nonfatal accidents and injuries at the McElroy Mine and other mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, according to contractor records on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's Web site.
Injuries recorded at the McElroy Mine since 2001 involving Central Cambria ranged from cut fingers to harm caused by rock falls during drilling, according to the MSHA Web site.
The last accident occurred Nov. 21 when a worker was hurt while dumping a muck bucket.
Kane said that while some injuries are minor, others are life-threatening.
"I'm a former shaft worker, and I know how difficult it is. The danger only makes it worse. I feel very deeply for the families of those who were killed, and injured," he said.
Also yesterday, a Cambria County emergency specialist said yesterday that the shaft rescue should have been handled by a special mine rescue team.
The early morning blast left three injured workers trapped 940 feet underground, but local emergency crews said they weren't qualified to attempt the rescue.
Instead, Marshall County sheriff's deputies went into the still-smoking shaft about an hour after the explosion and rescued the survivors.
Ron Springer, Cambria County's director of emergency management services, said the local emergency crews were right to hold off.
"Mine rescue is a specialized operation. For a fire chief to commit someone who is untrained could have caused a second disaster," he said in a telephone interview from his office in the county's 911 center.
"Of course it's frustrating to have to stand back and wait, but in reality that fire officer acted correctly," he said.
With mining accidents, the mine itself should implement any safety response plan it had and rely on special rescue teams, he said.
"The mining company should have a plan. In Pennsylvania, it's required by the state's Bureau of Mine Safety. Any rescue scenario would be coordinated through that plan."
Springer said that caution can save lives.
"The sheriff deputies who went in succeeded this time, but what if they had exceeded their training and made things worse? I would urge everyone to remember to go with what your expertise is, and not where it isn't."
Kane said that this is just another reminder that worker safety must be a priority.
"Before unions, there was no middle class. Now government is engaged in a program of wiping out the middle class.
"The gap between the very rich and the middle class is widening rapidly, and that's no accident when you compare that with policies endorsed by the White House that work against unions, the middle class, worker health and safety," he said.
"They've consistently cut back on workers' compensation for injured workers. There are just too many politicians in government who don't care about the middle and working class. The friends we have in government find themselves swimming against the tide."
In the West Virginia accident, officials said the methane explosion tore through the bottom of the shaft where the six Central Cambria employees were working. The shaft was about 60 feet from a coal seam when the blast occurred; the seam is known to release methane gas.
Investigators also plan to interview Aaron Meyer, 28, of Moundsville, W.Va., who was the only worker to be treated and released after the explosion.
Two other men – crew boss Richard Brumley, 51, of Waynesburg, Pa., and Benjamin Bair, 23, of Pentress, W.Va., – were being treated for second-degree burns and other injuries at Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital.
The dead, in addition to Roush, were identified as Ohio residents Richard E. Mount, 37, of Shadyside, and David W. Abel, 47, of Belmont.
Mine Blast Analysis Continues By Jennifer Compston
While officials with the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training recently confirmed that inadequate methane monitoring likely caused a Jan. 22 air shaft explosion in Marshall County, federal officials are stressing that the inquiry is far from over and that investigators need continued cooperation from all those involved.
Rodney Brown of the U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday that the investigation is ongoing and all results reported so far are "very preliminary."
"We intend to be very thorough and methodical in our investigation," Brown said. "And we hope that what we find will help educate the industry."
C.A. Phillips, deputy director of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, agreed, saying that in spite of the tragic outcome of such accidents, the industry as a whole can learn from the mistakes that lead to explosions and other mine-related disasters.
"From their mistakes, often times new laws are passed to prevent similar occurrences," Phillips said as he explained that the purpose of accident investigations is not only to find out how the accident occurred, but also to discover how future incidents can be prevented.
Phillips also emphasized that proper training is important to the safe operations of underground mines and other mining operations.
He explained that newly-hired underground miners in the Mountain State are required to participate in an apprenticeship, or "Red Cap," program. He said these apprentice miners must work 108 shifts before being permitted to take and pass an exam to become certified miners.
All through their apprenticeship, Phillips said these workers wear red caps that help other miners identify them as workers with less knowledge and experience.
In addition, Phillips said underground miners are required to undergo eight hours of training each year throughout their employment.
Regarding shaft and slope workers like those killed and injured in the explosion at the site where employees of Central Cambria Drilling Co. were constructing a ventilation shaft for Consol Energy Inc.'s McElroy Mine, Phillips could not outline specific training requirements. He did say, however, that shaft and slope workers are not required to participate in an apprenticeship program. He added that, in lieu of an apprenticeship program, a crew boss simply decides when a new employee has enough knowledge and experience to perform their duties efficiently.
Phillips on Wednesday reported that investigators believe the recent incident near Cameron resulted because workers failed to properly monitor methane levels.
Phillips also confirmed that a methane detector was found in the pocket of a work coat worn by 51-year-old Richard Brumley of Waynesburg, Pa., who was serving as the crew boss when the explosion occurred. Brumley suffered serious injuries in the incident that resulted in him being hospitalized for several days, but he was released from Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh on Monday.
According to Phillips, it is the responsibility of the crew boss to make methane examinations. He added that the responsibility would also fall to anyone who was about to use a torch for cutting or welding within the shaft. Phillips further said acetylene torches were being used in the shaft for the completion of such work.
Meanwhile, Linda Ross, a spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh where one victim of the explosion is still being treated for wounds and burns, said Thursday that 23-year-old Benjamin Bair of Pentress in Monongalia County has been upgraded from critical to serious condition. Bair has undergone four surgeries so far with the most recent surgery having been completed Wednesday.
The three men killed in the explosion were 37-year-old Richard E. Mount of Shadyside, 47-year-old David W. Abel of Belmont and 23-year-old Harry P. Roush III of Colver, Cambria County, Pa.