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Mine Disasters in
the United States


RAG American Coal Holdings, Inc.
Plateau Mining Corporation
Willow Creek Mine Explosion & Fire

Helper, Carbon County, Utah
July 31, 2000
No. Killed - 2



The afternoon shift on July 31, 2000, started at 3:45 p.m. William Burton and Richard Callahan were the two afternoon shift supervisors.  Burton oversaw the longwall operations and Callahan was responsible for the development operations.

Ernie Martinez, the regular afternoon shift longwall section foreman, had participated in mine rescue training on the day shift and did not work the afternoon shift.  Burton assigned Roger McKinnon, continuous mining machine helper, to fill in for Martinez as a "Spellboss" for the shift.  McKinnon was instructed to select three miners from the D-4 development section to perform outby work in the D-3 longwall section.  He selected Charles Whitten, continuous mining machine operator; David Berdan, shuttle car operator; and Jas Mills, roof bolter helper.  The longwall crew consisted of Wesley Ellner, tailgate shearer operator; Kyle Medley, headgate shearer operator; Tyson Hales, stageloader operator; Ronnie Gonzales and Shane Stansfield, longwall mechanics; and Cory Nielsen, propman.  At approximately 3:50 p.m., the longwall crew, along with McKinnon, Whitten, Berdan, and Jas Mills, boarded the mantrip on the surface and traveled underground to the D-3 section.

Upon arrival on the D-3 section, the longwall face crew traveled inby to the face area.  McKinnon spent about 15 minutes outby with Whitten, Berdan, and Jas Mills discussing their assignments before traveling to the longwall face.  Mining commenced on the section with Ellner completing the tailgate cutout and then mining toward the headgate on the initial pass of the shift.  During the shift, Ellner was to provide training to Nielsen on operating the tailgate drum of the shearer and Medley was to provide training to Ellner on operating the headgate drum.

After the shearer completed the headgate cutout, a wire rope was attached from Shield 1 to the shearer.  The wire rope prevented the shield from tipping over when the pressure against the roof was released as the shield was advanced.  This procedure was performed due to a mechanical problem with the anti-topple ram between Shields 1 and 2.  After this operation was completed, Ellner gave the remote controls for the tailgate drum to Nielsen and observed Nielsen as he completed the clean-up pass from the headgate back to the tailgate.

As the shift progressed, Burton traveled into the mine and arrived on the longwall section at about 5:30 p.m.  At approximately 6:00 p.m., McKinnon received a telephone call and was informed that the AMS indicated elevated levels of CO on the longwall belt.  McKinnon left the face area and traveled on foot outby in the No. 1 belt entry searching for the source of the CO.  He traveled to the box check at the mouth of the section but found no indication of CO.  McKinnon returned to the longwall face at about 8:00 p.m.  Burton advised McKinnon that the elevated CO levels were not associated with the longwall belt, but were in reference to a hot roller on Belt UG 3, which was repaired by outby personnel.  About the same time, Vernon Marvidikis and Brent Howell, beltmen, began rock dusting the longwall belt from Crosscut 21 to Crosscut 47.

At approximately 9:00 p.m., Layne Willson, electrician, was instructed to take a wire rope into the D-3 section to replace one which had broken during an attempt to prevent Shield 1 from tipping over.  Willson met Jas Mills several crosscuts outby and gave him the wire rope.  Jas Mills delivered the wire rope to the face and Willson exited the mine.  Burton had left the section and was outside by 9:30 p.m. where he talked to Henry Mills, midnight-shift maintenance foreman, and Kerry Hales, mine manager.

Ellner began the third clean-up pass from the headgate to the tailgate at approximately 9:40 p.m.  As the shearer approached the tailgate, at 10:14 p.m., a sudden release of methane into the face area caused the shearer to de-energize.  The longwall crew waited for methane levels to subside.  When the methane did not clear readily, a washdown hose was utilized in an attempt to dissipate the methane, but this was unsuccessful.  McKinnon arrived and instructed Gonzales and Medley to hang a piece of brattice to help sweep out the methane.  It took approximately 42 minutes for the methane to clear.  Although interruptions in production caused by methane were common, this was reportedly the longest interruption of the shift.  Ellner completed the clean-up pass and the cutout at the tailgate.

Burton entered the mine around 10:45 p.m. and returned to the D-3 section.  At Crosscut 47, he met Jas Mills and instructed him to bring a trailer from Crosscut 12 into the section.  Burton went to the face and Jas Mills trammed the scoop outby toward Crosscut 12.

Medley and Ellner were in the process of mining the fourth cutting pass.  Near Shield 35, Ellner gave his controls to Nielsen.  McKinnon was at the tailgate with Gonzales washing down shields and making sure the tailgate panline was pushed to the face and the shields were advanced.  McKinnon remained in the tailgate area until 11:30 p.m., when he began his preshift examination for the oncoming crew.

Nielsen completed the cutout at the headgate and the clean-up pass along the first eight shields.  Shields 1, 2, and 3 were not advanced.  The shearer was moved toward the headgate in preparation to attach the wire rope from Shield 1 to the shearer.  Ellner was at Shield 8.  Burton, Medley, Tyson Hales, and Nielsen were congregated in the headgate area.  Stansfield was outby their location.  Gonzales was shoveling at the tailgate and McKinnon was at mid-face taking an air reading.  Whitten and Berdan had installed the check curtain in Crosscut 48.  They were standing in the No. 1 entry at Crosscut 48.  Jas Mills was hooking the trailer to the scoop in the No. 2 entry at Crosscut 12.  Marvidikis was at Crosscut 8 in the No. 1 entry starting his preshift examination.

First Explosion

At 11:48 p.m., a methane explosion occurred on the headgate side of the D-3 gob.  Outside in the mine office, Dean LaCotta, Jr., AMS attendant, observed that the system was reporting communication failures with many sensors surrounding the D-3 section.  All of the miners on the D-3 section, and those in close proximity to the section, felt the forces of the explosion, but most miners interpreted the forces to be a result of a major cave in the gob.  The physical effect of the explosion varied for each miner depending upon their proximity to the origin.  Stansfield, probably located near Crosscut 49, was thrown by the forces and suffered rib injuries.  Burton, located at Shield 3, was knocked down.  Medley's hard hat was knocked off.  Ellner felt a blast of air traveling from the headgate toward the tailgate and turned toward the face to shield his eyes from the suspended dust.  When Ellner turned back toward the shield line, he observed sporadic blue flames in the toes of Shield 8.  He shouted "fire" to alert the miners at the headgate.  Medley and Ellner then observed flames at Shield 6.

McKinnon felt the air reverse direction briefly before returning to its normal direction.  Gonzales also noticed an air change and heard a loud noise in the pillared area, originating from the headgate side of the gob.  He called the headgate to inquire about the event and spoke with Tyson Hales.  During their conversation, Tyson Hales became aware of a fire near the headgate and advised Gonzales of the situation.  Gonzales immediately left the tailgate and traveled toward the headgate.  He met McKinnon near mid-face.  Gonzales suggested that they don their self-contained self-rescuers (SCSRs).  McKinnon conducted an air quality test with a handheld detector and informed Gonzales there was no need for the SCSR.  Following this conversation, McKinnon and Gonzales ran in the panline toward the headgate.

Jas Mills felt a slight overpressure at Crosscut 12.  Assuming there had been a roof fall in the gob, he continued hooking-up the supply trailer and proceeded to take the trailer inby.  Marvidikis felt a sudden burst of air at Crosscut 8 and also believed it was the result of a roof fall.  He continued the preshift examination of the No. 1 entry.  The forces caused Whitten to lose his hard hat and Berdan to be knocked to the mine floor.  They traveled through Crosscut 48 and observed damaged SCSR units, the SCSR cache box, and other debris scattered in the No. 2 entry.  In the face area, firefighting actions had commenced.  Medley, using a washdown hose, and Nielsen, using a fire extinguisher, attempted to extinguish the fire along the shields.  Ellner left the face to obtain additional fire extinguishers.  Burton called outside to report a major roof fall in the gob and a small fire behind the shields.  Burton also ordered evacuation of the continuous miner sections.

McKinnon and Gonzales reached the headgate area.  McKinnon attempted to spray water with a washdown hose but the water would not reach the fire area.  Additionally, the extinguishing agent dispersed by the fire extinguisher was observed suspended and moving very slowly along the face.  Burton called to the surface again, and directed LaCotta to contact Jerry Dubois, second shift mine foreman.  Dubois was instructed to send firefighting personnel and more fire extinguishers underground.  Burton dispatched Gonzales and McKinnon to retrieve more fire extinguishers.  Gonzales returned to the face and informed Burton that no more extinguishers were available on the section.  Burton instructed Gonzales to bring rock dust to the area in order to fight the fire.  Nielsen and Medley continued spraying water into the gob where the flames were visible.  The fire would disappear when sprayed with water and reappear at other shields.  The fire was migrating along the shield line.

Burton again called out and instructed LaCotta to call the mine rescue team and advise them that there was a fire at the mine.

Except for Medley and Nielsen, all of the other miners on the section were either obtaining fire fighting materials or preparing to evacuate the section.  Ellner had backed the mantrip to between Crosscuts 48 and 49 where Stansfield, Gonzales, and Tyson Hales were located.  Burton traveled through Crosscut 49 to the No. 2 entry and shouted that he needed fire extinguishers.  He headed back toward the face.  McKinnon picked up a bag of rockdust and headed toward the face.  Whitten grabbed a fire extinguisher from the mantrip and followed.  McKinnon reached the corner of the No. 1 entry, dropped the bag of rock dust, and turned to head outby to find another bag.  Medley, at Shield 15, sensed that the situation was worsening.  He observed that the fire was now burning more intensely in the gob and could hear the fire roaring behind the shields.  Appendix H is a copy of the mine map detailing the D-3 longwall section showing the location of miners prior to the second explosion.

Second Explosion

At approximately 11:55 p.m., a second explosion occurred in the D-3 gob.  The forces of the explosion threw Medley to Shield 6, where he ended up on his hands and knees in a pool of water and burning hydrocarbons.  Nielsen, who was located on the shield line outby Medley, was thrown to Shield 4 and was asphyxiated as a consequence of carbon monoxide poisoning.  The forces of the explosion threw Burton outby in the No. 1 entry and he ended up by the stageloader near Crosscut 49.  McKinnon was thrown into Crosscut 49 facing the outby rib.  He lost his cap lamp.  Burton and McKinnon felt intense heat and each received burns and other injuries.  Burton lost consciousness.  McKinnon attempted to don his own personal SCSR.  However, he dropped it and was unable to find it.  Whitten was knocked down and thrown back into Crosscut 49 against the outby rib.  He lost his hard hat, but not his cap lamp.  Whitten made his way to the No. 2 entry where he saw Berdan.

Berdan was in No. 2 entry near Crosscut 49.  Tyson Hales was nearby.  Gonzales, Stansfield, and Ellner were located in the No. 2 entry close to Crosscut 48.  Gonzales heard the explosion, felt slight forces and observed dust and debris coming out of Crosscut 49 into the No. 2 entry.  Marvidikis, in the belt entry near Crosscut 25, felt a small rush of air and believed that it was another cave.  He continued the preshift examination in the No. 1 entry, traveling inby.

Gonzales and Stansfield signaled the miners near Crosscut 49 to evacuate.  Ellner was at the driver's door of the mantrip and was entering the vehicle.  Gonzales opened the back door on the driver's side while Stansfield was preparing to enter the passenger side.

Third Explosion

At approximately 11:56 p.m., a third explosion occurred in the gob.  The forces of the third explosion likely resulted in Stansfield being fatally injured.  Tyson Hales was seriously burned and received a massive head injury.  Ellner was injured when he was thrown into the dashboard of the mantrip and felt intense heat.  Both Whitten and Gonzales were thrown past the mantrip by the force of the explosion.  Berdan was apparently knocked unconscious.  Gonzales, Whitten and Berdan received burns and abrasions from the explosion.  McKinnon, in Crosscut 49, experienced difficulty breathing and passed out.  Medley, on the face near Shield 6, felt debris pelting him.  Burton was located in the No. 1 entry near the stageloader, still unconscious.  Marvidikis, near Crosscut 24, was knocked down and rolled outby in the No. 1 entry about 10 to 15 feet, losing his hard hat.  He traveled through a mandoor where he found a pager and called outside.  LaCotta advised him that there was a fire on the face and that everyone was to evacuate.  Jas Mills was between Crosscuts 15 and 20 when the explosion force blew his hard hat off.  He observed that the air became dusty and seemed to reverse.  He donned his respirator and waited until he felt the air begin to flow inby.

Ellner exited the mantrip and traveled outby a few crosscuts on foot until he came upon Burton's truck.  Because Burton's truck was facing inby, Ellner backed it outby for several crosscuts until he found a location where he could turn the truck around.  He traveled alone toward the mouth of the section.  Although Gonzales had problems breathing and seeing, due to the dusty conditions, he struggled to his feet and started walking outby.  Gonzales located the six-inch water line in the No. 2 entry and used it as a guide for traveling out of the section.  He heard a back-up alarm from a vehicle and followed the sound outby for some distance.  Whitten found himself along the rib line.  His hard hat, cap lamp, and SCSR were missing.  Whitten felt his way until he saw a faint light, which turned out to be the longwall transformer.  He continued walking out of the section.

Ellner came upon Marvidikis near Crosscut 25, as Marvidikis was completing his phone call to the surface.  Ellner shouted to Marvidikis that there had been an explosion and that he should get in the truck.  Ellner continued driving outby with Marvidikis.  Ellner collided with the scoop operated by Jas Mills as he attempted to pass.  Ellner maneuvered around the scoop and told Jas Mills to get in the truck.  Jas Mills decided to move the scoop so others coming out of the D-3 section would have clearance to pass the scoop.  Ellner and Marvidikis changed positions in the truck and Marvidikis drove.  As they got near the mouth of the section, they passed Willson and another miner, who were transporting fire extinguishers to the section.  Ellner and Marvidikis continued to the surface where they arrived at approximately 12:12 a.m.

As Willson traveled inby, he passed Jas Mills and Gonzales.  He came upon Whitten at Crosscut 39 and decided to turn around, pick up these three injured miners, and transport them to the surface.  As they traveled outby, they met Henry Mills, Boyd Moosman, midnight shift maintenance foreman, and four other miners heading inby.  Willson informed Henry Mills of their decision to exit the mine.  Henry Mills and the others continued to travel inby.  At Crosscut 46 or 47, it became apparent to Henry Mills and Moosman that there had been an explosion.  At that moment, Henry Mills received a signal from his personal emergency device (PED), indicating that all miners should evacuate.  They drove out, reaching the surface around 12:45 a.m.

The miners that were left on the section began to move from their locations and interact with each other.  Medley, who had donned a 10-minute SCSR, crawled himself from the face to Crosscut 49.  He saw a cap lamp on the mine floor.  He felt his way along the cord to Burton, who was beginning to regain consciousness.  Burton crawled toward the No. 2 entry.  McKinnon also regained consciousness.  He staggered over and sat next to Burton near the shop car, which had been blown more than 50 feet to a location outby Crosscut 49 in the No. 2 entry.  Next to McKinnon were several SCSRs that had been scattered by the explosion.  He retrieved two SCSRs and gave one to Burton.  They each donned an SCSR.  Berdan staggered to their location from outby.  McKinnon gave a third SCSR to Berdan, but Berdan could not open it.  McKinnon also attempted to open it, but could not because of the injuries to his hands.  Medley crawled out of Crosscut 49 and continued toward the mantrip.  Berdan walked to the mantrip.  McKinnon went to start the mantrip and returned to Burton.  He was unable to move Burton to the mantrip and it was decided that Burton should wait for assistance.  Burton attempted to protect himself from additional injuries by positioning himself under the shop car.

As McKinnon walked to the mantrip, he saw Tyson Hales lying on the mine floor.  McKinnon, due to his injuries, was unable to assist Tyson Hales.  McKinnon, Berdan, and Medley traveled out of the mine.  At this time, Tyson Hales, Burton, Stansfield, and Nielsen were the only miners remaining underground.  McKinnon, Berdan, and Medley arrived on the surface at approximately 1:30 a.m.  Appendix G shows a photograph of the truck used by McKinnon, Berdan, and Medley.

Fourth Explosion

Fan data indicated that a fourth explosion occurred at 12:17 a.m.  Due to their condition and location, the few surviving miners remaining on the section do not recall this explosion.

RESCUE AND RECOVERY OPERATION

At approximately 11:53 p.m. on July 31, 2000, LaCotta received a telephone call from Burton.  Burton requested that the company mine rescue teams be called to fight a fire in the mine.  LaCotta secured a listing of Willow Creek Mine rescue team members and began calling those individuals at their homes.  Willow Creek Mine rescue team members began receiving calls at approximately midnight and began to arrive onsite minutes later.  MSHA personnel were notified at approximately 12:30 a.m. and began to arrive at the mine site at approximately 1:15 a.m.

Ray Haigler, mine rescue team captain, was one of the first to arrive.  Mac Cook, mine rescue team trainer, arrived onsite at approximately 12:15 a.m.  At the direction of Steven Rigby, maintenance manager, Haigler, along with Moosman, went to the mine return portals to monitor gases at approximately 1:00 a.m.  After checking the three return portals, twice each, they returned to the command center to report their findings.  Cook assisted Rigby with the outside activities as well as reviewing the gas monitoring results from the mine portals and the AMS system.  Rigby assigned the monitoring duties to another employee and instructed Haigler and Moosman to prepare the mine rescue team breathing apparatuses.  As of approximately 1:30 a.m., all but two members of the two Willow Creek Mine rescue team members had been contacted and were onsite.

A command center was established in the mine office.  Senior company officials directing rescue operations included Charles Burggraf, general manager, and Rigby.  MSHA officials included Irvin 'Tommy' Hooker, Gene Ray, Gary Frey, Larry Ramey, and Larry Keller.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., McKinnon, Medley, and Berdan exited the mine in the D-3 section mantrip.  They provided information concerning at least two of the injured miners still underground.  A decision was made to send a mine rescue team to the D-3 longwall section.  Cook assembled a six man team consisting of Haigler, Moosman, Dave Wood, Lee Montoya, Zach Robinson, and Ken Powell.  Cook briefed the team on what he knew of the events that had occurred in the mine, atmospheric conditions underground, on the location of injured miners, and on the need to communicate with the command center.  The remaining Willow Creek team members were to remain on the surface as a back-up team.  Several other mine rescue teams, although not officially called to the site, had arrived at the mine to offer assistance.  They had been temporarily staying in nearby Price, Utah, preparing to compete in a mine rescue contest that was scheduled to be conducted on August 1.

The six team members entered the mine at approximately 2:00 a.m.  They traveled in two vehicles, three team members in each, taking first aid supplies, fire extinguishers, water, stretchers, breathing apparatuses, and gas detection instruments.  The team maintained communication with the command center by pager phones as they traveled into the mine.  Conditions appeared normal until they approached Crosscut 43 of the D-3 longwall section.  At that point, the team members began to observe scattered debris, such as a trash can and a lunch box, in the roadway.  They traveled inby to Crosscut 44, which was the location of the longwall starter box.  From there, Haigler called the command center to report their location and the conditions encountered.  The air at that location was clear and was flowing in the proper direction.  Haigler continued inby on foot, followed by the other team members in the two vehicles.  He searched the crosscuts and under debris in the roadway for the remaining miners.  Near Crosscut 45, the team encountered significant signs of an explosion in the form of soot, metal stopping panels, and larger items of debris.  The team stopped at Crosscut 47, parked one truck in the crosscut, turned the other truck around, and parked it in the No. 2 entry.

All six team members assembled near the parked truck at Crosscut 47.  They shouldered their breathing apparatuses, gathered a few first aid kits and stretchers, and proceeded bare-faced inby in the No. 2 entry.  Conditions in the entry were very black and there was much debris strewn throughout the entire entry.  Upon reaching Crosscut 48, the team encountered Tyson Hales.  He was found near the center of the entry and was partially covered by a twisted metal stopping panel.  Haigler examined him for injuries.  A compressed airline, located above Tyson Hales, was open.  The noise it created made communications difficult.  After closing the valve, the team heard Burton calling from an inby location in the No. 2 entry.  Haigler, Wood, and Moosman gathered first aid supplies and traveled inby.

Powell, Robinson, and Montoya remained with Tyson Hales to stabilize his condition and load him on a stretcher.  Robinson proceeded outby and backed one of the trucks inby to Crosscut 48.  Haigler, Wood, and Moosman found Burton in the No. 2 entry, halfway between Crosscuts 48 and 49 lying partially under a shop car.  Burton was conscious, alert, and was able to describe his injuries to the team members.  He also relayed to the team that he thought Stansfield was outby his location and that Nielsen was probably still inby him.  They pulled Burton from under the shop car, stabilized his injuries, and loaded him on a stretcher.  Burton was carried outby toward the truck at Crosscut 48 where Tyson Hales had just been placed onto the truck by Powell and Montoya.

In order to place Burton onto the truck, it was necessary to clear more space.  The team members began to unload some of their equipment and while throwing fire extinguishers toward the rib, Moosman discovered another miner lying against the outby corner of Crosscut 48 in the No. 2 entry.  The miner was identified as Stansfield.  He was positioned against a timber set along the rib and was covered with brattice cloth.  Powell determined that Stansfield had received fatal injuries.

At that time, the team split up.  Robinson, Montoya, and Powell transported the two injured miners outside.  Haigler, Moosman, and Wood proceeded to explore the rest of the section searching for Nielsen.  They traveled from the No. 2 entry through Crosscut 48 into the No. 1 entry.  From there, they traveled inby and encountered two hard hats, one of which was McKinnon's.  They also found McKinnon's cap light at the outby corner of Crosscut 49.  They traveled through Crosscut 49 toward the No. 2 entry and back to where Burton was found.  The three members walked back through Crosscut 49 and went inby toward the longwall face.  At the inby corner of Crosscut 49, in the No. 1 entry, the team encountered light smoke and 4.6 to 4.9 percent methane.  At that point, the team members retreated to Crosscut 44 and reported their findings to the surface at approximately 2:40 a.m.

During this conversation, Haigler informed the command center that three team members were on their way out with Burton and Tyson Hales.  He reported the conditions of the injured miners and that Stansfield's body had been located.  Haigler also reported the atmospheric conditions found inby Crosscut 49.  Rigby, after consulting with Burggraf, instructed the crew of three to go under oxygen and travel to the longwall face in search of Nielsen.  The team found Nielsen at Shield 4.  An examination of Nielsen revealed that he had received fatal injuries.  Elevated methane concentrations and light smoke were present on the face; however, there were no visible flames.  The team retreated to the telephone and contacted the command center to report their findings.

Rigby and Burggraf discussed the reported findings.  Burggraf instructed Haigler to retrieve Nielsen from the face and bring both victims out of the mine.  Haigler informed Burggraf that they would need additional help to remove Nielsen from the face.  Burggraf told Haigler that the other three team members would return to the section.  Haigler, Moosman, and Wood remained at the location of the telephone until the other three returned.  Robinson and Powell prepared Stansfield for transport while Haigler, Montoya, Wood, and Moosman went to retrieve Nielsen from the face.  While under oxygen, the team returned to the face to retrieve Nielsen.  The four members removed Nielsen from the face and carried him to the vehicle.  Team members called the command center to inform them that the recovery was complete and that the entire team was returning to the surface.  All remaining miners arrived on the surface at approximately 4:00 a.m.

Upon reaching the surface, the team assisted placing Nielsen and Stansfield into ambulances.  The ambulances left the mine site at approximately 4:05 a.m.  A debriefing meeting was conducted in the mine office.  Present were the six mine rescue team members, Burggraf, Ramey, Ray, and Frey.  Haigler provided an account of the underground activities of the team.  The meeting was concluded at approximately 5:05 a.m.

 



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