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Monday's explosion second near-miss for Upper Big Branch miner

SETH, W.Va. -- Stanley Stewart, a continuous-miner operator at Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine, has had brushes with death in the mine before. 

In January 1997, he escaped after methane ignited while he was on the mine's working longwall face, where coal is extracted. He called the event a "very near-death experience."

Stewart also escaped the mine after Monday's explosion, which killed at least 25 miners. Four more remained unaccounted for on Wednesday evening.

Over the past 13 years, Stewart learned to take his 1997 methane ignition to heart. At the time, the blast deep within the mine "didn't come down the longwall face ... which saved our butts," he said.

"At that point in time I really and truly thought I was a dead man," he said.

Since, he's learned to laugh at petty things that make people mad and just seem senseless. For instance, he's not bothered when he gets stuck behind a slow driver on the highway.

"Why get mad about that?" he said. "Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride?"

On Monday, Stewart was about 300 feet into the underground mine when a small breeze kicked up around Stewart and several other miners in the area.

"Then that small breeze all of a sudden was very strong," he said.

Dust, dirt and debris kicked up, and Stewart felt a sense of panic.

"I told myself, 'You cannot panic. You know better,'" he said.

Stewart gathered himself, and told the men around him: "Take your time, boys, take your time on the way out. We don't need to fall.'

"It wasn't a time to fall," he said. "We needed to get out of there quickly and efficiently."

The powerful wind didn't let up as the men neared the exit. It lasted at least two minutes, maybe longer, he said.

Stewart, who lives just off W.Va. 3 near Seth, knew just about all the miners who died in Monday's blast -- "a lot of them personally very well."

Wednesday was anything but typical for him. Normally on a warm, beautiful spring afternoon he'd be all over the place and you couldn't get him to stop moving. Since Monday's explosion he hasn't done much, except for some media interviews.

Before long, he hopes to drive his four-wheeler to the top of the mountain behind his home, where he'll throw back a cold beer or two and just sit, away from everyone and everything.

Reach Davin White at davinwhite@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1254.


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