TOPMOST, Ky. — One night in November 1981, Roy Conley saw an unusual glow around the electrical center at the small underground coal mine in Knott County, Ky., where he worked, and he took it as a divine warning.
Conley kept it to himself for three weeks, but the worry was making him ill. He broke into tears when he finally told his wife: “I feel in my heart I’m going to get killed.”
He skipped the next work day at the Adkins Coal Co. mine at Topmost.
But with young children to feed and bills to pay, he went back on Dec. 7, 1981 — the day the mine blew up, killing eight men less than an hour into their shift.
It was the worst mine disaster in the county’s history.
The blast was part of a string of disasters that quickly focused scrutiny on regulators and coal-industry practices. Lawmakers strengthened safety rules, but another 1,518 U.S. miners, including 445 in Kentucky, would die on the job in the next three decades.
One of Knott County’s favorite sons, Democratic U.S. Rep. Carl D. Perkins, once said there was a prevalent, fatalistic attitude when he got to Congress in January 1949 that “some people are just bound to get killed” mining coal.
The attitude was rooted in tens of thousands of deaths.
It was not unusual for more than 2,500 miners to be killed annually across the U.S. in the first three decades of the 1900s, among them hundreds of men who went underground as coal production shot up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky after 1910.
Frank Fugate, a Knott County native who worked in underground coal mines from 1918 to 1952, told an oral- history interviewer in 1975 that coal companies and miners once knew little about preventing deaths.
“Nobody seemed to understand much about safety,” said Fugate, who was 83 at the time he was interviewed. “They was having a lot of casualties.”
Harry Caudill Fugate, whose interview is archived at Alice Lloyd College, said there was even a time when miners thought the coal dust they breathed included beneficial minerals.
In reality, breathing coal dust can cause black lung, a disease that impairs breathing and gets progressively worse, often resulting in a torturous, smothering death. Fugate had to stop and catch his breath several times, the interviewer noted.
Beginning of inspections
Whitesburg, Ky., lawyer Harry Caudill’s father lost an arm in an accident at a coal tipple, so Caudill knew the dangers of mining when he wrote his wrathful indictment of coal’s history in Eastern Kentucky, the book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.”
A “shockingly high” number of accidents in the early years of the industry killed and maimed miners in roof falls, explosions, machinery accidents and electrocutions, Caudill wrote in the 1963 book.
It was difficult to know the number of deaths and injuries, Caudill wrote, “but thousands of widows and orphans were left in the camps, and multitudes of ruined, broken miners were cast out to loaf before their dreary hearths and on the porches of the commissaries.”
There had been a federal Bureau of Mines since 1910, but its role was limited to research and investigating accidents. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress gave federal inspectors the right to go into mines, and those inspectors had no mandatory health and safety standards to enforce until 1952.
In November 1968, an explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, W. Va., killed 78 people, and the images of smoke billowing out of the mine shocked the country.
The next year, Perkins helped push the toughest mining law in U.S. history through Congress. It increased inspections of underground mines, mandated fines for safety violations, added criminal penalties for willful violations, set a limit on miners’ exposure to coal dust, and created compensation for miners suffering from black lung.
Congress changed the mine act again in 1977, after two blasts in March 1976 killed a total of 26 men, including three federal inspectors, at the Scotia Coal Co. mine in Letcher County, Ky. The new requirements included underground mine rescue teams and training for miners.
The next year, coal-mining deaths nationwide hit their lowest level of the century, at 106. Safety advocates thought the laws were paying off.
Deaths went back up in 1979, however, and by the winter of 1981-82, a string of mine disasters would make clear that many coal companies and miners were breaking the law, and — as Perkins and others would argue - that regulators weren’t doing enough to make them operate safely.
Disaster after disaster
The Adkins Coal Co. No. 11 mine, also known as the No. 18, was a small operation in a narrow hollow called Potato Branch, near the community of Topmost in eastern Knott County.
The mine, where an employee had been killed in a blasting accident in October 1980, was one of several operated by Orville Adkins and his family. It employed 23 people, split between two shifts, in December 1981.
There were 10 employees at the mine when the second shift started at 2 p.m. on Dec. 7, 1981.
Nine toiled underground, often on their knees because the coal seam in the mine was only about 31 inches high, and one worked at the repair shop outside.
The mine used a method called “shooting from the solid” to blast coal loose. Employees drilled a series of holes into a wall of coal, then tamped in a nitroglycerin-based explosive and detonated the charges.
The blasting caps in each hole had different delay periods, so the charges went off in sequence across the working face — something like slicing off pieces of bread from a loaf. Miners used a machine called a scoop to gather the loose coal and dump it on a conveyor system.
Some states had banned shooting from the solid because of concerns that it was dangerous, but it was common at hundreds of small mines in Eastern Kentucky at the time.
Roy Conley, then 21, was a scoop operator. He had hauled two loads of coal when a piece on the machine broke. Ordinarily, he would have called the repair shop, and the man there would have brought another scoop underground for him, but that day, two other scoops were broken, Conley said. So he drove his scoop out of the mine to be fixed.
He’d been outside no more than five minutes when he heard a noise and sensed a pressure, then saw mud, water and rocks twice as big as basketballs shooting from the mouth of the mine.
Nearly half a mile away underground, the blasting powder in one hole had failed to detonate. That created extra pressure on the next charge, and flame shot out from that hole into the mine, like a backfire. The flame ignited fine particles of coal dust and the explosion propagated, sucking in more coal dust to feed on as it tore through the mine.
It would have been like a tornado on fire, said Ray Slone, a longtime miner and the brother of David Slone, one of the men at the Potato Branch mine.
The day after the blast in Knott County, 13 miners were killed in a methane explosion at an underground mine in Tennessee. Six weeks later, seven miners were killed in a massive coal-dust explosion at the RFH Coal Co. No. 1 mine in Floyd County, which adjoins Knott County.
Violation after violation
Safety violations caused all three blasts, investigators found.
At the Knott County mine, workers had put far more explosive into the holes than permitted, and they hadn’t packed clay dummies or other “stemming” materials into the blast holes to keep flame from shooting out into the mine, where it could ignite coal dust, federal regulators concluded.
To compound the problems, there was an improper accumulation of coal dust in the mine; sufficient rock dust hadn’t been used to render the explosive dust inert; and there wasn’t adequate ventilation to clear coal dust, according to a report from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The clay dummies designed to keep flame from shooting out of the blast holes cost a few cents apiece, said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., attorney who represented several widows of men killed in the blast.
“These guys literally were all killed because they didn’t want to pay a few bucks,” Oppegard said of the mine’s owners.
Orville Adkins, the mine owner, has since died. A woman who answered the telephone at the home of his son, Adam, said the family did not want to comment.
Ray Slone, the brother of victim David Slone, said the practices at the Adkins mine were not unusual at the time.
“All of us done the same thing. We just didn’t get caught,” he said.
Perkins, the congressman whose modest Knott County home was a few miles from Topmost, chaired the House Committee on Education and Labor at the time of the disaster.
The unabashed New Deal Democrat had known Clarence and Roy Perry, their sister said. He wanted answers about why so many miners were dying in his district.
In February, a subcommittee of Perkins’ committee opened a hearing on the explosions in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was a time of cutbacks at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and Perkins said he thought MSHA hadn’t done enough to deter dangerous practices in the mines.
“I personally feel a contributing factor in these accidents was the inadequacy of the inspections,” he said.
Sam Church, the burly president of the United Mine Workers of America union, testified that MSHA had conducted 5,117 fewer inspections in 1981 than the year before, even though the number of licensed mines had increased by 426. The number of MSHA inspectors had declined from 1,389 in 1979 to about 800, then-U.S. Rep. Paul Simon, D-Ill., told the committee.
MSHA Chief Ford B. Ford did not acknowledge any link between the reduced number of federal inspections and the increase in mine deaths, and he said President Ronald Reagan’s administration was committed to miner safety.
Critics, however, said MSHA was backpedaling on tough enforcement to benefit the coal industry. “Mr. Ford was chosen by the Reagan Administration to de-emphasize the federal government’s commitment to coal mine safety and to ensure that safety regulations do not hinder coal production, and Mr. Ford is thoroughly and enthusiastically doing the job he was assigned to do,” families of the dead miners said in a statement issued in August 1982, the day they picketed a coal-industry meeting in Lexington that Ford attended.
As in the wake of other disasters, regulators became more vigilant after the Topmost blast and lawmakers toughened rules, but the philosophy on how best to achieve mine safety can change with the political winds.
Under Republican President George W. Bush, MSHA used an approach called “compliance assistance” aimed at helping coal companies follow the law, an echo of the cooperative stance the agency had taken two decades earlier under Reagan.
Many in the coal industry favored the move, but critics said it was a poor alternative to aggressively cracking down on violations. MSHA records list no coal-mine disasters - defined as events involving five or more deaths - in the eight years before Bush took office, but four on his watch.
Between 2001 and 2005, the Bush administration cut back on the number of mine inspectors, dropped more than a dozen proposed safety rules and reduced the size of fines for safety violations, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said in a January 2006 report.
After explosions at underground coal mines in West Virginia and Harlan County killed a total of 17 miners in the first half of 2006, some mine-safety advocates argued that the administration’s approach to enforcement had borne bitter fruit.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that there were so many disasters” under Bush, said Oppegard, who worked at MSHA in the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Congress and MSHA changed mine-safety law and rules again in 2006, mandating a greater supply of emergency air supplies for miners; emergency shelters in mines; high-tech communications and tracking devices to help find miners; and stronger materials to block off unused portions of mines.
But in the worst mine disaster in 40 years — a coal-dust blast that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April 2010 —MSHA found that the operator, Massey Energy, had brazenly covered up violations to thwart the law.
Joseph Main, a former union safety director whom President Barack Obama appointed to head MSHA in 2009, started a program of special inspections after the Upper Big Branch blast to target mines with poor safety records and other problems.
Federal inspectors have since written more than 11,000 citations and orders during those “impact” inspections. Between September 2010 and September 2012, the number of serious violations that inspectors found during the special inspections went down 21 percent, showing that the program was working, Main said.