Beyond Sago: One by One
CUMBERLAND, Ky. — At about 10:40 a.m. Dec. 30, 2005, in a tunnel inside H&D Mining's Mine No. 3 in Harlan County, Ky., Bud Morris was standing next to his coal car, dumping a load into a feeder bin.
Another miner, Donald Eural Allen, drove his car toward the bin. He couldn't see Morris, because the coal was piled a foot too high. Mine managers had added sideboards, so the car could carry a bigger load.
Allen's car slammed into Morris' back, knocking him into the bucket. Morris' left leg was cut off 17 inches above the heel. His right knee was crushed.
"I could see that his legs had been hit bad," recalled mine foreman James Couch. "I could see that one of them was already off."
Gary Bentley, one of the mine owners, was called to the scene. "His body was in the car, and his leg was lying on the ground," Bentley said later.
Bentley was listed as one of the mine's medical technicians, but investigators found he did nothing to help Morris. Couch was listed as the other medical technician, but it turned out he was never trained for the job.
Morris bled to death, investigators concluded, because neither Bentley nor Couch put a tourniquet on his legs.
"My husband went 55 minutes without any medical treatment, and that's uncalled for," Stella Morris said during an August interview. "He would still be alive today if they had treated him properly."
No television crews camped outside Mine No. 3. CNN didn't send a crew in a satellite truck. Politicians didn't gather with families in a nearby church.
Bud Morris died alone, like most other coal miners killed on the job in America.
Three days after the accident, on Jan. 2, Stella Morris was getting ready to bury her husband when she saw the news on TV. In West Virginia, 13 miners were trapped underground at a mine called Sago.
At the funeral that afternoon, Bud Morris' uncle, Roger Sturgill, asked mourners to pray for the Sago miners.
Mine disasters like Sago get headlines. But far more coal miners die as Bud Morris did — alone, crushed by heavy equipment, ground up by runaway machinery, buried beneath collapsed mine roofs:
Only 13 percent of the more than 100,000 coal miners killed in the United States in the last 100 years have died in mine disasters, which regulators define as accidents causing five or more deaths.
Between 1996 and 2005, there were 297 fatal coal-mining accidents that killed a total of 320 workers, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data shows.
Eleven of those accidents claimed more than one life. Thirteen miners died in the September 2001 explosion at the Jim Walters Resources mine in Alabama, and three in an explosion at CONSOL Energy's McElroy Mine near Moundsville, W.Va., in January 2003. Nine other accidents each killed two miners.
Two hundred eighty-six of the miners killed on the job in the last decade died alone.
Most of these coal miners also died for the same reason: Their employers ignored safety rules.
Almost every single one of the 320 workers killed in U.S. coal mines in the last decade didn't have to die, according to a six-month investigation of coal mine safety in America.
Nearly nine of every 10 fatal coal-mining accidents in the last decade could have been avoided if existing regulations had been followed, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail study of MSHA reports.
The Gazette-Mail analysis found:
"We haven't invented new ways to kill people," said mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration. "People are dying because we haven't kept up with particular statutes and rules."
Richard Stickler, a longtime coal operator appointed last month by President Bush to run MSHA, agrees.
"I believe most of the accidents that have occurred in my memory happened because the law and regulations were not followed," Stickler said earlier this year.
The safest year on record
The day before Bud Morris was killed, the Lexington Herald-Leader published a story that praised the record-low number of coal-mining deaths in 2005.
Through Dec. 29, 21 U.S. coal miners had died on the job. The next morning, Morris became the last coal miner killed in the safest year since regulators started counting deaths more than a century ago.
Thirty-six years to the day earlier, Dec. 30, 1969, Congress passed the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Lawmakers were responding to the deaths of 78 miners at Consolidation Coal Co.'s No. 9 Mine near Farmington, Marion County, W.Va.
Since then, coal mines nationwide have become much safer. Death and injury rates are down. Huge disasters are rare.
Between 1969 and today, U.S. coal production has tripled, to more than 1 billion tons per year. The number of miners killed has been similarly cut, from more than 100 a year to an average of about 30 annually in the last decade.
Thirty hours into 2006, any celebration of 2005's safety success ended for the coal industry.
At about 6:30 a.m. Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine, a small underground operation in Upshur County, W.Va. One miner was killed by the blast, and 11 others suffocated before rescuers could reach them 40 hours later.
Two weeks later, two miners died in a fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.
On May 20, five miners died in an explosion at the Darby Mine in Eastern Kentucky, making 2006 the first time in two decades that there have been two mine disasters in the same year.
Outraged lawmakers gave fiery speeches. They demanded tougher enforcement and regulatory reforms. Reporters from New York and television crews from Washington poured into coal country to interview grieving widows and write exposés on mine disasters.
No one seemed to notice a larger pattern was continuing.
At Sago, Aracoma and Darby, a total of 19 coal miners died. Through Oct. 31, another 24 coal miners have died alone — more than the total death toll in 2005.
With coal prices high, pressure is on mine managers and miners to get coal out as fast — and as cheaply — as possible. Miners and mine safety advocates worry that more miners will perish in the process.
"Safety is taking a back seat to production right now," said Floyd Campbell, a United Mine Workers safety committee member at Foundation Coal's Emerald Mine near Waynesburg, Pa.
James Blankenship, an Alabama coal miner and UMW representative, said, "As long as the price of coal is where it is, it's all about production — get it out as fast as you can."
Coal industry officials disagree. The industry "takes seriously its commitment to protect its workers," said Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist on safety issues for the National Mining Association.
"Safety and productivity are not competing goals, but rather complementary goals," Watzman said.
Still, the 2006 death toll has continued to 43 nationwide, the highest since 1995:
During the previous four years, 12 other miners were injured in similar accidents at the mine. Federal investigators also found "numerous additional near misses" where company officials did not install timbers or other supports to protect miners from loose rocks in the mine walls.
"This is really an outlaw industry," said Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety activist and lawyer from Kentucky.
In the last 10 years, MSHA has fined coal operators more than $14 million for violations that contributed to miners' deaths, according to a first-of-its-kind computer analysis by the Gazette-Mail.
Per violation, MSHA officials fined companies a median of $22,000, about one-third of the maximum allowed by law. For each miner killed, agency officials assessed a median fine of $4,250.
But fines are lowered or thrown out by judges. MSHA settles for less to avoid legal fights. Companies go belly up and don't pay, or MSHA does not aggressively pursue payments. In some cases, appeals are still pending for deaths that occurred years ago.
After the deaths of 13 miners in the Jim Walter No. 5 explosion in Alabama, MSHA fined the company $435,000. A judge reduced that to $3,000, an average of $230 for each miner killed. Another appeal, by MSHA, is pending.
Overall, companies have paid $3.4 million, about one-fourth of what MSHA has sought, according to the Gazette-Mail analysis.
In cases where fines were issued and are not under appeal, coal operators have paid a median fine per miner death of $6,200.
But fines were not issued in nearly one-fourth of the cases, and decisions on fines have not been made in a few cases from 2005.
If all 320 miners' deaths are counted, the median fine so far paid by coal operators is $250 per death.
Not learning from the past
On Feb. 6, 1986, design engineer Joseph E. Dunn and a team of other workers walked out onto the top of a 15,000-ton coal storage bin to check on repairs needed for a conveyor belt at Consolidation Coal Co.'s Loveridge No. 22 Mine at Fairview, Marion County, W.Va.
At about 11 a.m., Dunn and four other workers disappeared into a six-foot-diameter hole in the coal pile.
MSHA blamed company officials, saying they wrongly allowed workers to walk on the coal pile without ensuring that no dangerous cavities formed underneath.
A dozen years later, bulldozer operator Jessie Vance Jenkins Jr. disappeared into a void in a coal pile at another Consolidation Coal Co. operation, the Buchanan No. 1 Mine in Mavisdale, Va. Investigators said the Nov. 22, 1998, accident occurred because the company's feeders allowed gravity to suck coal out of the pile even when the feeder was turned off.
Five months after that, on April 11, 1999, Larry Neff was killed when the dozer he was operating fell into a void in a stockpile at Massey Energy subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co.'s Chess Processing Plant in Sylvester, Boone County, W.Va. Investigators found that Massey regularly had dozer operators run their machines directly above feeders without examining the area for dangerous voids.
"We have repeated disasters, and it seems we don't learn from them," said Ed Harvas, a Salt Lake City lawyer who represented families of miners killed in the 1984 Wilberg Mine fire.
'Failed to recognize the hazards'
Two days after Christmas in 2000, 46-year-old preparation plant foreman Ricky Ferris was trying to dislodge an ice clog from a slurry pipeline at Tug Valley Coal Processing in Naugatuck, Mingo County, W.Va.
When Ferris turned on a pump, the pipeline whipped in the air, hitting Ferris and sending him flying, landing face down on the impoundment.
MSHA inspectors found that Tug Valley management "failed to recognize the hazards associated with the pipeline being pressurized." But the agency issued no citations and did not fine the company.
Instead, MSHA officials warned mine operators and miners nationwide that unclogging slurry pipelines could be dangerous and needed to be done carefully.
Four years later, Dec. 28, 2004, heavy equipment operator Earnie Williams and some other workers tried to unclog a frozen slurry line at International Coal Group's Supreme Energy Prep Plant in Knott County, Ky.
The slurry flew out of the line, hit a metal support and ricocheted into Williams' head.
MSHA investigators blamed the death on ICG's failure to design a safe procedure for clearing frozen slurry pipelines. Agency officials fined the company $440.
On March 11, 1996, miners Wesley Littlepage and Rickey Bowles were cleaning up ice that had built up inside a shaft at Costain Coal's Baker Mine in Union County, Ky. The ice fell on them, killing Littlepage.
The company had had similar problems. In October 1995, when the shaft opened, an ice fall damaged a hoist and a cage used to carry miners in and out of the mine. The same thing happened in February 1996 and on March 10, 1996, the day before Littlepage was killed.
After the death, MSHA did not cite or fine the company. Instead, agency officials issued a "safeguard order" that required the company to design a safe ice removal procedure.
On Jan. 28, 2002, Fred R. Hess, a 54-year-old preparation plant worker, was killed when a clean-coal pump blew up at CONSOL's Island Creek VP 8 plant in Buchanan County, Va.
The pump had overheated, causing pressure to build up to unsafe levels. Twelve years earlier, the same thing happened with a different pump at the same plant. Mine managers installed heat and pressure warning alarms on most of the pumps. For some reason, they did not put an alarm on the clean-coal pump.
MSHA officials fined the company nearly $28,000, but settled for a payment of $16,650, agency computer records show. CONSOL added heat and pressure alarms to the clean-coal pump.
'A direct tie to the fatality'
On June 4, 1998, miner Adam Justice was knocking out timbers to move a conveyor belt inside Upper Mill Mining Co.'s Bee Tree Mine at Breaks, Va. At about 1:30 p.m., a rock fell on Justice, pinning him inside a three-wheeled mine car.
Investigators found that mine managers did not check the area before Justice's shift. If they had, investigators said, they might have seen and fixed the loose and damaged roof bolts and loose rocks.
Under federal law, mine operators must perform a variety of regular safety checks. Equipment must be examined, roof control reviewed and methane levels monitored.
But after miners are killed, inspectors frequently find that mine operators did shoddy safety checks, or ignored the requirement altogether.
In one-fourth of the mining deaths in the last 10 years, MSHA investigators found such problems.
Such violations are more than paperwork problems, said Charleston lawyer Mike Callaghan, who prosecuted mine safety cases while he was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1992 to 2001.
"If you have an electrocution, the first thing you do is go in and see if they did the electrical examinations, and they probably didn't," Callaghan said. "That's a direct tie to the fatality."
In the last 10 years, federal prosecutors have brought criminal charges in just eight of the 297 accidents that killed coal miners.
Four of those eight cases included charges concerning failure to do proper safety checks, according to a review of MSHA records and federal court files.
Two years after Adam Justice was killed, prosecutors charged Upper Mill Mining, company President Gary Horn and two other mine managers with criminal violations for not doing required mine safety checks.
In that case, prosecutors also charged Horn for violations related to the death of another miner at a different company.
On May 12, 2000, William Blankenship, a 29-year-old continuous miner operator, was crushed between his machine and a wall at Buchanan Production Co.'s Mine No. 2 near Grundy, Va.
Blankenship was using a remote control to move the mining machine to cut another section of coal. Suddenly, the machine's boom arm swung toward Blankenship's helper, Earnest Owens. Owens ducked, but the boom hit Blankenship and crushed him against a wall.
Investigators ruled the mine manager had not properly trained Blankenship to use the remote control unit.
In recent years, coal industry officials have frequently complained about a shortage of experienced, trained coal miners. At the same time, federal inspectors are finding that lax training — or lack of any training at all — is to blame for mining deaths.
Blankenship was one of 64 miners who died during the last decade at least in part because the company he worked for had not properly trained him.
'With every breath in my body'
Just before the 6 o'clock news Jan. 21, 2006, then-state mine safety Director Doug Conaway took the podium to confirm the worst. The two miners missing in the fire at Massey's Aracoma Mine in Logan County had been found. Rescuers were too late. Ellery Hatfield and Donald Bragg were dead.
Gov. Joe Manchin announced he would introduce three bills he said would make West Virginia's coal mines the safest in the country.
"This has got to stop, and it's going to stop — if I've got anything to do with it — with every breath in my body," said Manchin, who lost an uncle in the 1968 Farmington disaster.
Two days later, lawmakers unanimously approved Manchin's landmark plan to require rapid rescue response to mine emergencies, mandate electronic tracking of miner locations underground, and force coal companies to provide additional emergency oxygen underground. Other states and the federal government have followed with similar mine rescue initiatives.
But in the 10 months since Sago and Aracoma, Manchin has not acted on other promises or proposals to prevent mine accidents.
The governor has never introduced his promised legislation to ban the use of conveyor belt tunnels to bring fresh air into underground mines. Critics say the practice, legalized nationwide in 2004 by the Bush administration, helps spread fires, smoke and deadly gases.
Three weeks after the Aracoma fire, Conaway, a holdover from the Wise administration, resigned as director of Manchin's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training to take a job with Arch Coal.
Manchin brought in West Virginia University instructor James Dean to run the office for six months. The governor asked Dean for a complete review of the agency and proposals to make it better.
In early August, just before he left, Dean asked Manchin to hire more inspectors and provide money to improve the pay of existing employees.
On Aug. 31, Manchin appointed Ron Wooten, a former CONSOL Energy safety executive, to the state mine safety post. At the time, Manchin said he wanted Wooten to review Dean's proposals before acting on them.
Last week, Wooten said he has not finished his review.
"We are certainly studying them," Wooten said in an interview. "They're not on a shelf gathering dust."
During the summer, the Manchin administration wasted no time making a major change in another key state mine safety rule.
In late July, the mine safety office finalized a rule that reduces the amount of training miners must receive to be certified to perform electrical work in underground mines.
Previously, state rules required electricians to take part in a 12-month apprentice program. The new rule, which still needs legislative approval, allows "alternative electrical training programs" of less than 12 months.
Peabody Coal and the West Virginia Coal Association supported the proposal. Local officials from the United Mine Workers, the UMW's national safety director, and several coal companies opposed it.
"Somebody always wants to go backwards on our safety," Danny McCoy, a safety committee member at Mechanical Mines said at a July public hearing.
Bud and Stella
In August 2005, Bud and Stella Morris were living together in Cumberland, Ky., a town of about 2,600 not far from the Virginia border.
Both had been through failed marriages. Bud had a son from his previous relationship, and despite being told by doctors she couldn't have kids, Stella was pregnant with their "miracle baby."
On Aug. 3, word spread about a terrible mining accident at Stillhouse Mining's Mine No. 1, just down the road from where Bud worked at H&D Mining. Stella was worried. Her friend Claudia Cole's husband, Russell, worked for Stillhouse. So Bud and Stella drove down to the mine site to find out what had happened. It was a roof fall, they learned. Two miners were missing. One of them was Russell Cole.
At about 9:30 that night, Cole and another miner, Brandon Wilder, were on a crew that was "pulling pillars" that were left during previous mining to hold up the mine roof. The roof fell in on them. It took rescuers three days to dig Russell Cole's body out.
'He didn't think it was safe'
Landen Jaycob Morris was born to Bud and Stella in September.
A few months later, Dec. 30, Stella was just getting into the shower. Bud had left for work about 6 a.m. At about 2 p.m., she would leave for her job at a local convenience store.
The phone rang. It was James H. Hurley, president of H&D Mining.
"Stella, Bud got his legs cut off," she remembers him saying. Stella rushed to the hospital, 20 miles away in Harlan.
"The doctor came out and said they were doing all they could," she remembered. "Five minutes later, the doctor came back and said that he was gone."
Bud and Stella Morris were both 29 years old when he died. Bud had worked in the mines for about five years. Before that, he worked in a factory and at a garage. But the mine paid better.
"He had some back problems, and they were getting worse," she recalled. "He wanted out. He didn't think it was safe."
Today, Stella Morris is back at work. Family members help her care for her son.
"I talk to him every day about his dad, and I'll do that the rest of my life."
Stella wishes the company had called her sooner, so she could have gotten to the hospital before Bud died — so he wouldn't have had to die alone.
"I could have been there before he died, just to tell him I loved him."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
How we did this story
When an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine on Jan. 2, killing 12 workers, coal mine safety again became a national issue.
The Sunday Gazette-Mail wanted to take a broader look, to examine the daily dangers faced by the 79,000 coal miners who help provide more than half of the nation's electricity.
Reporter Ken Ward Jr. had been covering mine safety on and off for much of his 15 years at the newspaper. And he had recently been awarded a six-month fellowship by the Alicia Patterson Foundation to study the coal industry.
Under the direction of City Editor Robert J. Byers, Ward narrowed the focus of his fellowship to a project on coal mine safety. This story, the first in a series of special reports, is the result of that work.
Since April, Ward has traveled the coalfields of West Virginia and visited mining areas in Alabama, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, conducting more than 100 interviews with coal miners, mine operators, mine safety experts, government inspectors and elected officials.
Ward has filed more than two dozen public records requests, and analyzed numerous government computer databases that detail mine safety inspections and enforcement.
Also, Ward examined federal investigation reports concerning the deaths of 320 miners over the last decade, and built his own database to study the findings. Ward also reviewed federal investigation reports from more than two dozen major coal-mining disasters dating back to 1970, and studied dozens of technical papers about mine safety issues.
Future stories will examine, among other issues, the unique dangers faced by strip-mine workers, the controversial emergency breathing devices carried by all coal miners, and the oversight record of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.