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Mine Disasters in
the United States


Buckeye Coal Company
Nemacolin Mine Fire

Nemacolin, Greene County, Pennsylvania
March 26, 1971
No. Killed - 3



Rescuer Death

On April 16, 1971, at about 1:30 p.m., William L. Groves, State Deep Mine Inspector, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, was accidentally drowned during the firefighting operations.

The Nemacolin Mine Fire was the first deployment of MESA's (later MSHA) Mine Emergency Operations (MEO).  Although unsuccessful in locating and rescuing the two trapped miners there, this event marked the dawn of much needed technology, equipment and capability to search for and rescue miners trapped in mines.
Related Resources: Historical Summary of Mine Emergency Operations by Jeff Kravitz  
MSHA Mine Emergency Operations by John Urosek   (4.2 Mb)


From the Google News Archives:  External Link
(news links open in a separate window)


On Friday, March 26, 1971, at approximately 10:20 a.m., a fire occurred in 118 straight mains section in the Nemacolin mine of the Buckeye Coal Company.  There were 125 persons underground, 11 of whom were working in 118 straight mains.  Of the 11, nine persons escaped and two persons were killed.  Also one person accidentally lost his life on April 16, 1971, during direct fighting of the fire.

It is the writers' conjecture that the fire resulted when the end of the trolley wire fell in No.2 entry (empty track) of 118 straight mains and came in contact with the grounding clamp attached to the track rail.

General Information

The Nemacolin mine at Nemacolin, Greene County, Pennsylvania, is operated by The Buckeye Coal Company, a subsidiary of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, Youngstown, Ohio.

At the time of the last Federal inspection prior to the fire, employment was provided for 349 persons, of whom 263 worked underground and 86 on the surface, 3 shifts a day, 5 and 6 days a week, to produce an average of 5,846 tons of coal daily.

The mine is opened by one slope and five shafts into the Pittsburgh coalbed, which averages 84 inches in thickness in this area.

The volatile ratio of the coal in this mine as determined from the analysis is 0.39, indicating that the coal dust is explosive.

A regular Federal inspection was in progress at the time of the fire.  The last Federal inspection prior to the fire was completed November 19, 1970, and spot-check inspections were made weekly.

Mining Methods, Conditions and Equipment

Ventilation and Gases


The area where the fIre occurred was ventilated by the No.2 fan.  In 118 straight mains, a split system of ventilation was employed and provided approximately 46,000 cubic feet of air a minute.  Auxiliary fans in conjunction with line brattice were used to ventilate the working faces. Examinations for methane and other hazards were made as required.

Evidence of Activities and Story of Fire

The 118 straight mains day shift crew consisting of 11 men, including the foreman and a mine tool bit company representative, entered the mine on March 26, 1971, at 7 a.m., and arrived on the section about 7:30 a.m.  Normal mining operations were in progress until approximately 10:10 a.m., when Wayne Bair, stoper operator, complained to John Horvat, section foreman, that fumes from the stoper were burning his eyes.  Horvat instructed him to install two more roof bolts and the Galis roof bolting machine would complete the job.

Bair, while assembling the bolts, noticed the failure of air pressure to the stoper.  To ascertain the cause he traveled through "0" crosscut to a canvas check installed in No.2 entry.  Upon opening the check in No. 2 entry, he observed yellow smoke, closed the check, and went for Horvat.  Due to the dense smoke, Horvat instructed the crew to leave the section.  Horvat proceeded out No.4 entry to the loading loop and through the No.3 crosscut to the ramp on No.3 entry where he encountered dense smoke.

Meanwhile, Bair and Zorasky notified John Kingora, the utility man in No.5 entry, and the men in Nos. 6 and 7 entries that evidently there was a fire in the section and that everyone was to leave through the left returns.  The men assembled outby the check curtain in No.6 entry.  Philip Ferrotti, continuous miner operator, decided to go back into No.7 entry to retrieve his safety lamp.

Randolph also decided to return to No. 6 entry for his safety lamp.  When Ferrotti returned to the group, he was told that Randolph had gone after his safety lamp and had not returned.  Ferrotti went into No.6 entry as far as the last open crosscut to where he could see the bolting machine.  He called Randolph several times; not receiving any response and observing dense smoke in the crosscut, he returned to the assembled group.

The group then proceeded out to the junction of 118 straight mains and 118 mains left where they Horvat an~ informed him that Randolph was still in the section.  Charles Gibson, Sr., mason, who was installing a stopping on the right side in 118 straight mains, was not accounted for at this time.

At approximately 12:45 p.m., William L. Groves, State Deep Mine Inspector; Earle M. Rudolph, Federal Coal Mine Inspector; George J. Cerjanec, Mine Foreman; and George Bizub, afternoon shift foreman arrived on the scene.

It was decided that boreholes would have to be drilled from the surface into the face area of 118 straight mains in an attempt to contact and rescue the trapped men.  The drilling was started on March 26.

Geo-phones were also used to detect sound vibrations underground; however, these efforts were futile.  Throughout the entire recovery operations, approximately 90 boreholes had been drilled into the mine workings in and around the fire area.  Various materials were induced via these boreholes into the mine in an effort to control the fire.

On March 31, it was decided that the entrapped men could not have survived the gases produced by the fire.  Since direct attack was ineffective, it was agreed to flood the fire area with water to the highest water level obtainable and that all persons would be withdrawn from the mine during the flooding operation.

On April 15, mine rescue teams entered the area and direct firefighting was resumed; however, the fire had spread beyond its last known location to Nos. 0 and 00 entries (return entries) at No. 19 crosscut.

On April 16, at about 1:30 p.m., William L. Groves, State Deep Mine Inspector, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, was accidentally drowned during the firefighting operations.

On May 14, it was decided to systematically inject nitrogen from the surface through boreholes at strategic locations to aid in containing the fire.  Nitrogen was induced into the fire area on a prearranged schedule to minimize possible explosion hazards and to reduce the fire to a dormant state.

A decision was made on May 29 to return underground to seal the fire area.  An examination of the entire mine was initiated at 3:45 p.m. the same day.  Work toward installing bulkheads was to commence on June 2.

A total of 25 bulkheads were erected.  Twenty-three were installed by personnel underground, and two, Nos. 24 and 25 from the surface via boreholes.

The bulkheads were completed on August 10, 1971, and after allowing sufficient curing time the bulkheads were inspected on August 26 by the four agencies, after which pumping of water was initiated to fill the area behind the bulkheads to the maximum waterhead attainable.  On August 28, water pumping was halted and excessive seepage around several of the bulkheads was stopped by chemical and cement grouting.  A re-inspection of the bulkheads was made on September 1, and the bulkheads were found to have minimum leakage.  The highest water elevation level attained was about 603 feet.

After the area had been flooded for a 17 month period, a meeting was held on September 11, 1972, and a decision was made whereby all normal production was to cease and 118 straight mains (sealed area) was to be recovered.

At 5:15 a.m., September 15, 1972, mine rescue teams wearing McCaa breathing apparatus and using hand tools penetrated 118 mains left from 10 right through No.2 room.

At 11:50 p.m., an object was sighted floating in about 3 feet of water in No.6 room, 118 straight mains.  Upon entering No.6 room, it was determined that the object was a body, later identified as that of Richard K. Randolph.  The body was recovered at 3:10 a.m., September 16.

On September 21, the body of Charles Gibson, Sr. was found in the No. 10 crosscut on the return side of a stopping between Nos. 1 and 2 entries.

On October 2 the mine, with the exception of 12 right section, was released for production of coal.  Coal production was resumed on October 3.

Probable Cause of Fire

The trolley wire and insulating anchor were found lying on the mine floor at the compressor nipping station.  Examination of the trolley wire and the attached anchor indicated that the clamp attaching the hanger to the trolley wire was partially consumed by electrical short circuit.  Evidence indicated that the vinyl-type insulation in the hanger bell used to anchor the trolley wire had softened due to heat.  The trolley wire and the softened insulation then pulled free from the hanger bell allowing the end of the trolley wire to drop to the mine floor, striking one of the compressor ground clamps.  This resulted in the partial destruction of the anchor and the ground clamps.  The second ground clamp with a negative and frame ground conductor was intact. Analyses of samples of coal and coke collected in the area of the compressor nipping station indicated high heat in the roof area and low heat near the bottom.  After removing the trolley wire anchor bolt assembly, samples were collected from the inside of the hole and at the roof line.  The analyses of these samples indicated more heat inside the hole, rather than at the roof line outside the hole.  This indicated the probability of the hanger being grounded and generating heat, which resulted in the softening of the insulation in the bell thereby allowing the trolley wire to drop to the mine floor striking the negative ground clamp which was the origin of the fire.

Appendix A

Memorandum report on accidental death of William L. Groves


William L. Groves, age 57, had 38 years of mining experience.  For the past 14 years, Mr. Groves was a State Deep Mine Inspector.

On Friday, April 16, 1971, William L. Groves, State Deep Mine Inspector, Donald W. Huntley, Subdistrict Manager, Health and Safety District A, Bureau of Mines, and M. M. Fitzwater, Jr., Mine Superintendent, Nemacolin mine, discussed the firefighting methods being used in the Nemacolin mine and decided to get a first-hand look at the situation.  The group entered the mine at approximately 12:00 noon and proceeded to Entry 118.  The water level rose as they proceeded inby.  The group was wearing waders and walking was difficult because of slippery conditions and hidden obstacles in the water.  After traveling 100 feet inby (one crosscut), they passed a Joy loading machine and, at this location, foam was encountered.  As they proceeded inby in Entry No.3, the water and foam increased in depth until they reached the intersection outby No. 51 Borehole.  At this intersection the water was about two feet deep with about three feet of foam floating on top of the water.  At this point the foam was about shoulder high.

Messrs. Fitzwater and Huntley removed the brattice check cloth which was diagonally across the intersection.  After traveling a short distance further toward Borehole No. 51, it was decided that they could do no good until the foam was beaten down.  They (Fitzwater, Huntley, and Groves) discussed the fire and the conditions that they observed.  Not being able to see very much in the crosscut just outby borehole No. 51, Mr. Huntley called out to have a hose and fog nozzle brought up; he then decided to go out until the equipment arrived.  Huntley worked his way past Groves and proceeded outby.  Groves suggested that he and Fitzwater stay until Mr. Huntley notified them that the equipment had arrived and they (Groves and Fitzwater) would come out.  Fitzwater was just a short distance inby Groves when he (Fitzwater) heard a faint call for help in back of him.  When he looked around he could not see Groves.  Fitzwater called that Groves was down in the foam and water.

Huntley, who had traveled outby Borehole No. 51 about 30 to 40 feet, returned to help Fitzwater.  Edward Urbany, Mine Safety Coordinator, Department of Mines, Walter J. Balitski, Federal Coal Mine Inspector, Supervisor, U. S. Bureau of Mines, Kittanning, Pennsylvania, and Harvey Lewis, Chief Engineer, a short distance outby Huntley, also came up to find Groves.  This group using feet and hands attempted to find Groves.  The hose and fog nozzle were brought up and played on the foam where Groves was last seen.

Groves was actually found by Magera, face down and spread eagle.  Groves' boots were floating with the heels sticking out of the water.  He was in the intersection outby Borehole No. 51. The time elapsed from Fitzwater's call that Groves was down until he was found was estimated to be from 5 to 10 minutes.

In searching for Groves, the foam got stirred up and even increased to ear-depth due to the group (Fitzwater, Huntley, Lewis, Urbany, Balitski, and Magera) searching for him. On Wednesday, April 28, 1971, Walter Vicinelly, State Deep Mine Inspector, performed an experiment in a 20 foot diameter swimming pool with 30-inches of water in it.  The water temperature was 46 degrees F. and outside temperature was 56 degrees F.

Mr. Vicinelly dressed as William L. Groves had been dressed -- with waders, miner's belt around the outside of his waders, hard hat, cap lamp and battery (left hip), and with his self-rescuer on his right hip.  Mr. Vicinelly also wore a jacket.

It was decided with Federal, State, Union and Company officials present, that Walter Vicinelly would enter the swimming pool, take a couple of steps and then fall forward.  Mr. Vicinelly did this.  He struggled to get his feet down but could only paddle "doggie-fashion" until he reached the side of the pool where he pulled himself up.  He was completely exhausted and had been in the water for only 20 seconds.  His rubber waders kept his feet afloat and he was unable to get his feet down on the bottom.  All those present observed his waders floating.  This, it is believed, is what happened to William L. Groves.  No one saw Groves fall.

As a result of this experiment, the State recommended that when waders are worn a life jacket must also be worn.



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