On the cold morning of December 7, 1992, an explosion occurred at South Mountain No.3 not far from Norton, Virginia. It was the first explosion to rock the mining communities of Southwest Virginia since the explosion at McClure #1 in 1983.
|The Milwaukee Journal - December 7, 1992|
As the day progressed, television crews from the Tri-Cities and newspaper reporters from all over the nation gathered in and the rest of the world became informed. Despite the images of smoke billowing from the portals, we still held hope that the men working the # 1 Left section were still alive, including the father of one of my schoolmates who had been working there less than 6 months.
Even with the emotional turmoil occurring just down the road, miners, including my father, were still was still required to report to work at Plowboy #4, the sister mine to South Mountain and owned by the same man, Ridley Elkins. To this day my dad still recalls passing by the entrance to the South Mountain mine, seeing it lit up at night with emergency personnel and news crews swarming the area. "It was the hardest thing I think I ever had to do.” he once told me solemnly, “Go to work knowing them boys was still trapped in that mine."
- Improperly conducted weekly examinations for the No. 3 Mine and
the 001 section on November 21-30, 1992. The certified examiner failed
to examine the bleeder system in its entirety due to adverse roof
- An inadequately conducted smoking search program. Smoking
material was found with three of the victims, and a lunch container was
found to contain two full packs of cigarettes and two cigarette
- Failure to conduct a thorough preshift examination on the 001
section between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on December 6, 1992, for the
oncoming midnight shift on the 1 Left 001 section.
- Improperly placed and maintained ventilation control devices.
- Failure to maintain the required incombustible content of the mine dust.
- Failure to follow the approved ventilation plan in the bleeder system inby No. 1 Left 001 section.
- Failure to provide the necessary volume and velocity of air in the 1 Left 001 section.
- Failure to conduct weekly examinations of the ventilation system at least every seven days.
The methane monitor on the continuous miner, a device meant to shut down the miner in the case methane levels increased to explosive levels, had been bypassed (tampered with) to speed production. This, along with the failure of both mine management to properly examine the ventilation systems as mandated by law, led to ventilation problems allowing methane to reach dangerously explosive levels. To save money on materials and labor, mine management had even failed to see that coal dust accumulations were kept in check by applying rock dust to all areas of the mine, an inert lime stone powder meant to stifle coal dust's ability to ignite when in the air.
Following the explosion, a great deal of controversy arose around whether state and federal mine inspectors had done their jobs, especially with regard to whether or not inspectors had been physically going into the mine to inspect mine ventilation, safety equipment, coal dust accumulation, and rock dust application. It had often been rumored that inspectors would just sit out in the office trailer of the mine site, shooting the breeze with mine managers, and in some cases, even accepting "gifts" from small coal company operators.
For once, community members hoped that the defunct system of mine safety regulation would be seen for what it truly was, and, maybe, just maybe, the system would be fixed. With the idea that many mine inspectors and mine officials were facing time in prison due to their failures to uphold mine safety laws, many people speculated that they scrambled to find ways to clear their names, or at least lessen the backlash they would receive for their failures to protect the lives of eight men--men whose families would never recover from the loss of their loved ones.
During the investigation, investigators supposedly “found” cigarette lighters and cigarettes in one of the fallen miner's dinner buckets. They had a "cause," a "direct reason" for the explosion that would take attention away from the largest causes of the explosion--the bypassed methane detector, mine ventilation that was not kept in accordance with the law allowing methane to reach explosive levels, and failures to keep coal dust under control by applying rock dust. People within the community, including other miners who worked for Ridley's mining operations, suspected the cigarettes and lighters were planted to place blame on men who could not defend themselves. Family and friends of the fallen miners were outraged at the allegations.
Several years later the widows of the fallen miners filed a lawsuit against the Mine Safety and Health Administration for not performing their duty. The story made the papers when a federal judge exonerated the MSHA officials, stating the accident was a result of the mine owner's failure to maintain safe working conditions, yet no further actions were taken against Ridley following that ruling. Ridley Elkins still enjoys life today in Clintwood, Virginia.