Saturday, December 7, 2013

Remembering the South Mountain No. 3 Mine Explosion

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

While we were getting ready for school that morning my mother received a call. She went in and woke my father to tell him the news--there was an explosion at the South Mountain mine and there was no communication with the men inside. It was the mine just down the road from where he worked, owned by the same man. My father came out of the bedroom, dressed and ready, but for what, he did not  know. His face was grim. My father went to the mine site to see if he could help, but there was not much he or anyone else could do. When he returned, he told us how the explosion was so massive it had thrown conveyor belts out of the mine and hung them over power lines, and that a drink machine was blown across the hollow and had landed on the opposing hillside.

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."
Two and half days later all hope was lost when mine rescue teams reached the section. The lives of eight men had been lost.
Claude L. Strugill       
Palmer E. Sturgill       
Mike D. Mullins                     
Brian Owens  
James E. “Garr” Mullins                    
David K. Carlton                     
Danny R. Gentry         
Norman D. Vanover
Plowboy # 4 didn’t shut down despite the loss of lives, nor the fact that the seam they were mining was directly over top of the Southmountain Mine which had just exploded. When holes were being drilled down to test the air in the South Mountain Mine during the rescue efforts, the drills punched through sealed sections of Plowboy #4 mine, creating a dangerous situation for the miners working there. Ridley Elkins kept Plowboy running, kept producing coal, kept his mind on profits. Some miners, including my father, protested the mine running while the rescue efforts were still underway, knowing in their deepest sense it was wrong to keep working while friends nearby where possibly trapped following the explosion, their loved ones, exhausted with worry, clinging to hope. Once the men at South Mountain were found to have perished, Ridley told the miners at Plowboy who had raised their voices to, “Just go home until them boys is buried." Ridley only gave those few men time off to attend the funerals. He kept running Plowboy #4, keeping his profits rolling in.

The following investigation revealed many problems with the operation of the mine. According the US Mine Rescue Association the following contributed to the explosion: 

  1. 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 conditions.

  2. 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 lighters.

  3. 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.

  4. Improperly placed and maintained ventilation control devices.

  5. Failure to maintain the required incombustible content of the mine dust.

  6. Failure to follow the approved ventilation plan in the bleeder system inby No. 1 Left 001 section.

  7. Failure to provide the necessary volume and velocity of air in the 1 Left 001 section.

  8. Failure to conduct weekly examinations of the ventilation system at least every seven days.
But there was more to it than that. 

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.
Many believe the coal company owner and mine management should have gotten life in prison, along with some of the Federal and State mine inspectors who failed to enforce regulations meant to keep such tragedies from happening. In the end Ridley Elkins only spent 6 months in jail and his company was fined $2,000,000, of which $900,000 was earmarked to go to the families of the fallen miners. 

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.
Dad and several other men quit working at Plowboy #4 not long after the explosion--some of them never worked another day in a coal mine.


  1. Ridley has a nice big house on cherokee lake

    1. 163 Cannon Rd
      Mooresburg, Tn 37811

  2. Reading this was hard, but every word the truth. My dad, my hero died that day and is way too often forgotten, as are the other men. Thank you Nick for this. God bless you and your family.
    Beth Mooney, proud daughter of Mike Mullins

  3. For all of us that stood there and neverl left until they were out and realized they werent going to walk out in a miraculous wish, I really hope Elkins faces judgement the hard way because he has never had to have him hit it where he thinks it matters: hos wallet

  4. The reason that a civil lawsuit against the Southmountain mine owners was not successful is because of the extremely restrictive workers compensation law in Virginia, which provides immunity to most wrongdoers, no matter how egregious their negligence. It's a little known fact in the Appalachian coalfields that most mine disaster victims get no financial judgment against the mine operators whose negligence/indifference has caused the disaster. The only compensation they get is workers comp benefits, which is wholly inadequate. Why you ask? Because industry has high-priced lobbyists who draft laws to benefit them and state legislators - who introduce and pass these restrictive laws - care more about protecting corporations than about helping working class people. The lone exception is West Virginia where coal miners and other blue collar workers actually have a decent chance of winning damages for corporate misconduct.