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8 > Page 8 of Blue-Tail Fly, No. 11

Part of Blue-Tail Fly

medium-serious range, there were no daily examinations being made of the fan; no weekly inspection for hazardous conditions; no weekly ventilation examinations. Power connection points were improperly located. There was no evidence that qualified people were maintaining the electrical equipment. In the danger range, there was electrical equipment being operated without grounding; and management had provided only nine self-rescue devices for the 39 men underground. Self-rescuers, as they are commonly called, are small gas masks designed to help a miner survive the "afterdamp" of an explosion -- the period afterward when oxygen is low (because of being consumed in the blast and fire) and carbon monoxide is high (because it replaces oxygen in such a situation). The older models provided 30 minutes of breathing time. Newer models provide 60 minute s. The most serious violation that Hyde found was what he reported as "dangerous accumulations of loose coal and coal dust" along the roadways. Along with that, rock dust had been insufficiently applied, so that the dust was present in explosive quantities in the air. To make matters worse, Hyde found that "trailing cables were run over unnecessarily" -- i.e., machine operators were driving back and forth over their power cables running the risk that the cables would snap and start a fire in the loose dust. "Evidence of smoking was present, " Hyde noted; that made matters even worse. He found further that there was no short-circuit protection on the equipment in the working areas, and that trailing cables on the mining machine and mobile drill contained three uninsulated splices apiece --an invitation to trouble. Beyond that, no one was testing for gas --a fundamental precaution even in a supposedly gas-free mine. Citing Section 104(a) of the mine law, which permits an inspector to close a mine if there is an "imminent danger" of explosion or fire, Hyde ordered the men out of the mine and issued a penalty notice to the Finleys. ^Cieoretically the closing of a mine under such circumstances can have serious economic consequences for an operator. The Finleys' mine was closed for two days; at 600 tons of production per day, that meant a tonnage loss of 1200, which could amount to about $5, 000 worth of coal. Theoretically an operator who had just lost $5, 000 because of a sloppy mine operation would be greatly motivated to clean it up, and to keep it clean. In this case, however, theory and fact got in each other's way, because Inspector Hyde closed the mine over a weekend, when it would not have been producing coal anyway. The clean-up crews did their work, and on Monday, June 22, Hyde permitted the Finleys to open mine No. 15 again. A little less than two months later, early in the evening of August 12, Inspector Gordon Couch got a call from Charles Finley, who reported that there had been an explosion in mine No. 15, and two men were injured. Couch and another inspector, H.A. Jarvis, went to the mine two days later and conducted an investigation that was completed August 19. On the afternoon shift of August 12, they reported, a mobile-drill operator named Rufus Whitehead and his assistant, Mack Collins, were moving their drill from one location to another when it became caught on a high place in the floor of the mine. Wrestling with the machine, they snagged it on its trailing cable, and the cable short-circuited. The arc "ignited coal dust, lubricants, and other combustible materials" on the drill. Collins and Whitehead went to one of the mine entries and asked to have the power shut off. Then they went back to the drill and put out the fire, using rock dust, which they poured over a burning container made out of an inner-tube. When the container stopped smoking, they settled down to wait for a repairman to come and fix the cable. Suddenly there was a blast, and "metallic fragments and other materials were blown into the face, chest, and right arm of Whitehead, " according to the report. Collins was luckier, suffering only a ruptured eardrum and a few cuts; he went for help for Whitehead, who was blinded and had been badly injured in the chest and right arm. Hyde and Jarvis could not find the rubber inner-tube and no one seemed to know where it was or what had 8/number been in it. But Charles Finley told them that "in the past he had observed detonators in prepared explosive charges being transported on the drill" and had told the crews that it was a dangerous business. He "believed this practice had been discontinued, " according to the inspectors' report. The inspectors assumed that the container had been on the drill and that even after being rock-dusted by Whitehead and Collins had remained hot enough to set off the explosives. The blast severed hydraulic hoses connected to the drill, and sent pieces of hose and drill smashing into Whitehead. In the opinion of the inspectors, the principle cause of the explosion was "improper handling and transportation of explosives" and "failure to protect the trailing cable. " But they also noted a "lack of proper supervision in the mine. " In their recommendations they warned against letting coal dust accumulate on electric equipment. Couch visited Hurricane Creek again on October 19 to make a "Partial But Representative" inspection of No. 16 mine. This one produced a long list of violations --20 in all, and a few more less serious ones, many involving deadlines for ventilation plans and similar items required by the new law. Couch spelled them out and ordered them corrected on a variety of dates. He checked back at the mine on October 26, made a spot inspection, found some of the earlier violations corrected and others not, and cited the mine for an additional violation: there was no plan for emergency medical assistance, an item considered important by Congressmen who knew that mines are often remote from towns and hospitals. Couch ordered Finley to put together a plan by November 17, and went back to Barbourville. About 8 o'clock on the evening of November 9f the Barbourville office got another telephone call from Charles Finley. It was about another accident. This time a miner was dead. Inspectors Hyde and Couch took down the details and went out to the mine the next day. Joined by Everett Bartlett, district supervisor of the state Department of Mines and Minerals, they conducted an investigation which they completed November 13 and submitted to their supervisor, T. R. Mark. The dead miner was Charlie Wagers, who had been working for Finley in the No. 15 mine for three months. The evening he died, he was operating a battery-operated tractor used to tow a trailer with coal from the work areas to the conveyor belt. He was 24; he had been mining coal about three years; he was married, no children. There was nothing very complicated about the accident, as Hyde, Couch and Bartlett soon found. The tractor that Charlie Wagers was using was operating defectively and giving him trouble: when he put it into forward, it went backward. (The inspectors looked at the machine and found accumulated coal dust in the electrical contacts, indicating that the machine had not been properly maintained; they found also that it had been re-wired and the safety fuses removed, and there was no protection a-gainst short-circuits. Checking other tractors, they found several without safety fuses and two with defective brakes. Citing the tractors as an imminent danger, they ordered them taken out of the mine. Again, it might seem that this would serve as a spur to the operator to train his men and keep the mine in shape, since the loss of the tractors meant that coal could not be moved to the conveyor belt. But the order was written on a Friday; the mines were not working over the weekend, while the tractors were repaired; and they went back into use on Monday, so there was no loss of production.) Wagers had trouble with his tractor three separate times on the shift. The first two times, a repairman came and tried to fix the machine, but it kept acting up. The third time, Wagers was trying to negotiate a corner with his trailer coming behind, and got stuck. He tried to maneuver out. After backing and filling a couple of times, he was about free of the obstruction -- the coal wall -- and put the tractor into forward gear. It lurched backward, catching his head between the end of the tractor and the coal wall, and crushing his skull and killing him. The federal inspectors minced no words in defining the eleven',