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.