Two thousand feet below the rolling, wind-scrubbed hills, in a remote section of North America's deepest coal mine, the walls began to creak and pop.
In a dark corridor about 100 feet away, two miners watched as long steel bolts anchored into the rock roof began to snap and shoot to the floor with a metallic "ping."
Timber posts bowed under the massive burden of earth.
"It's coming down," miner Mike McIe said to his partner, Gaston Adams Jr.
If the prospect of a roof collapse unnerved Adams, the 56-year-old mine veteran didn't show it.
He routinely faced down the perils of his workplace: the sudden cave-ins; the plumes of explosive coal powder that float through the mine in greasy, gray clouds; the pockets of methane gas that lie odorless and invisible against the rock.
But this day was different. The worst U.S. mine disaster in 17 years was about to unfold.
Water began to spout through fissures in the broken stone. Foreman Tony Key walked up behind the other miners nonchalantly as the rock collapsed with a sudden "whoosh."
"It's like the World Trade Center," Key remarked.
Then the deep mine unleashed its terrifying force. A drama of mortal courage, swift death and survival began.
A slab of rock smashed into a couch-size battery-charging station that hung from the gray roof by chains. A spark arced into a pocket of methane gas, federal investigators believe. The roaring explosion threw McIe more than 20 feet, burned Key and pounded Adams with chunks of rock.
Fanned across the 12-square-mile honeycomb of dark, 32 men labored in Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine on the afternoon of Sept. 23, 2001. Through the simmering ash, a dozen of the miners ran or hopped on rail cars and streamed in to rescue "Junior" Adams and the mine.
They were met by a second, more powerful blast. Flames shot two-fifths of a mile up the ventilation shaft and spat out melted wreaths of plastic pipe and fragments of a miner's cap.
Thirteen men would perish--grandfathers, husbands, fishing buddies and war veterans who gloried in pulling hard fuel from the mine's mottled walls. Their courage, and the story of No. 5 Mine, attracted scant attention as the nation reeled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A year later, with memories of the disaster still fresh among the miners and anger toward the company growing stronger, the story of what went wrong is still being pieced together.
Some surviving miners blame the company for the horrific death toll. Jim Walter routinely sacrificed safety for coal production, they say. And during the frantic 50 minutes between the two explosions, they say company supervisors issued misleading directions that led to miners' deaths.
Jim Walter officials declined to discuss many aspects of the tragedy, citing an ongoing federal investigation. But company executives said they ran the mine safely and tried to protect their workers from harm. The men acted on the miners code, Jim Walter officials say, and rushed in to rescue a fallen comrade, ignoring the perils ahead.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, the Labor Department division that enforces mine safety and issues citations, is still investigating the accident. The families of the dead miners and a few of the surviving miners are suing Jim Walter, although those cases remain in the early stages.
Amid the welter of accusations and defenses, certain facts have emerged from MSHA case files, internal company records and interviews with miners.
Records and interviews show serious safety infractions at this top-producing U.S. coal company and lapses by the federal agency charged with inspecting its mines. No. 5 Mine had a higher injury rate than three-quarters of U.S. underground coal mines during the last decade, making it one of the most hazardous in the country.
Federal officials cited a lack of emergency planning at the mine. In a December letter to Jim Walter officials, MSHA Alabama district manager Frank C. Young Jr. wrote that the ongoing investigation indicated "there was no responsible person who took control of the situation" during the disaster.
Jim Walter officials dispute MSHA's conclusion that the company's evacuation plans and practices were inadequate, saying the aboveground dispatcher and a foreman underground "took control of the situation as it developed."
Although Young had approved Jim Walter's six-page emergency plan for the No. 5 Mine in 1999, he asked company officials to quickly revise that plan three months after the September blasts. Making points the company would later dispute, Young questioned the company's ability to locate and evacuate miners during an emergency. Some shifts, he noted, didn't have anybody designated to direct emergency responses.
Many miners had lost faith in MSHA. Jim Walter foremen often were tipped off before federal inspectors arrived in their sections of the sprawling mines, veteran company miners said in Tribune interviews.
"The boss would call ahead," said Ray Milan, who has toiled for 22 years in Jim Walter mines. The men would clean their stations to avoid citations. Then, "soon as the inspectors leave, everybody gets up and goes back to running coal," Milan said.
Some crucial truths remain obscured. The miners' accounts of the event are at times contradictory or incomplete, and many were reluctant to talk.
The company's aboveground dispatcher testified to federal inspectors that he consistently alerted miners to the explosions below, according to sources familiar with that testimony. Some miners have corroborated the dispatcher's account in Tribune interviews.
But other men dispersed across the mine that afternoon say they were given no word of the emergency. Some said the dispatcher told them the distant rumble that felled Adams was only a routine fire or vent rupture, not an explosion.
An explosion can knock out the mine's ventilation system, allowing pockets of methane to build rapidly and setting the stage for a second blast. Surviving miners say they should have been alerted to the danger and evacuated immediately.
The dispatcher "told us five different things," said miner Ricky Rose. Unaware that there had been an explosion, some miners were "on a suicide mission, that's my opinion," he said.
Descending into danger
On that Sunday afternoon, 32 miners drifted through the cinderblock bathhouses where they put on their work clothes: layers of fraying shirts and hardhats with union stickers too dusty to read, leather belts saddled with canisters of water and oxygen, and small silver crosses on thick necks.
They dropped their plastic ID cards into numbered slots, then filed into "the cage."
The steel-walled elevator descends nearly twice as far as the one that travels to the top of the Empire State Building. At 12 feet a second, the ride lasts about three minutes.
His first time on, Randy Jarvis clutched the hand chains above him and stared through the grated metal floor at "this black abyss coming up."
The miners unloaded in a place they call the bottom, a cathedral of chiseled rock whose walls and 20-foot-high ceilings are frosted with fire-retardant limestone powder. This is the brightly lit nerve center of the subterranean deconstruction site.
Buttons gleam on truck-size power generators. Rail car tracks switch into dark portals. A network of umbilical tunnels twists toward the sable walls where coal is cut. Three shifts a day, seven days a week, 300 miners pull out some 5,000 tons of coal a day. Some ride the rails a half-hour to their remote stations.
As they waited for their shift to start that afternoon, the 32 miners sat on toolboxes and upturned crates and talked quietly. Thomas Connor was three years out of high school when he started working for Jim Walter in 1979. For four sleepless semesters, Connor also took classes at the University of Montevallo in central Alabama, but he quit college after a professor took him aside to express envy at his mine wage.
Around him sat the men he considered his mentors.
They called Charlie Nail "Jingles" because the pockets of his bib overalls rang with the loose springs and screws he plucked from the floor and the tools he welded himself: the wrench with a crooked handle and the ratchet with a socket on the other end.
At 59, Nail wore out apprentice mechanics as he kept the mine's machinery grinding. None of the others knew he filled spiral-bound notebooks with poems like the one about "the Wildwood fern . . . with leaves outstretched."
Terry Stewart kept a pocket-size New Testament with the fishing gear in his battered pickup truck.
Sammy "Joe" Riggs was working his way through the Book of Job. He kept a thumb-blackened copy of the federal mining code in a kitchen drawer.
Mostly in their 40s and 50s, they were masters of the perilous work that quietly provides 52 percent of America's electrical power. Through years of danger, dust and body ache, they had learned the nicknames of each other's grandchildren and the contents of each other's lunch buckets, shared secrets from the sunlit world above where some were black and others white.
They shrugged off the job's frequent punishment. When one Jim Walter miner got hit in the face by a cable, he took six stitches and didn't miss a shift of work. When another's foot was mashed under a drill head, he did not take time off until 10 months later because "surgery became necessary," federal safety records show.
One of the rare Jim Walter supervisors at home among his miners was David Blevins, 52, a poker shark and freshwater fisherman with luminous blue eyes.
A coal miner since his teens, like his father and grandfather, Blevins was one of three foremen in charge of the maintenance crew that Sunday afternoon.
Growing up in the coal fields of McDowell County, W.Va., he fell for a bashful 16-year-old on the school bus.
"From then on it was Wanda this and Wanda that," said Blevins' best friend, Raymond "Johnny" Holleman, a supervisor at Jim Walter's adjacent No. 7 Mine. Married eight months later, "they more or less grew up together as one."
As they raised two sons, Wanda Blevins worked as a nurse while David assumed growing mine responsibilities and umpired Little League games that began with prayer.
In 1994, as West Virginia's coal economy began to slide, Blevins answered a Jim Walter ad in the newspaper and took a mortgage on a Tuscaloosa bungalow big enough to hold the stream of McDowell County friends and all the stray puppies his wife brought home.
But Blevins grew increasingly troubled by the safety practices at the Alabama mine, his family and friends say.
"They are going to blow the mine to hell and back," he told neighbor Betty Oswalt earlier that September as they sat in front of his house sipping coffee.
"I fear for my life and my men too," Oswalt recalled Blevins saying.
About 11 on that Sunday morning, Wanda Blevins cooked her husband of 35 years his favorite lunch: chicken and dumplings, green beans, biscuits and blackberry cobbler.
After he ate, David Blevins took a short nap then absentmindedly loaded his lunch bucket with three Gala apples on top of the three Wanda had already put in it. He kissed her just above her right eye and stood with his hand on the doorknob in his cutoff jeans, sandals and red-and-tan Jim Walter cap.
"God, I hate to work Sunday," the foreman said.
The task of the pared-down maintenance shift was to spread across the mine and prepare it for the week of production ahead. Battling the simple physics of the deep tunnels, the men sprayed the walls sugar-white with the fire-retardant limestone powder.
They patched the cement and tin walls of the ventilation system that carries 3 million cubic feet of fresh air through the mine each minute and lifts out its incendiary mix of coal powder and methane gas. They bolstered the roof by stacking hardwood beams like oversize Lincoln Logs until the pillars could be splinted snug against the earth above.
At the bottom before they set out, their conversation turned to recent problems in the mine.
"Me and Charlie Nail were talking about how much gassier and more dangerous the mine had become," Connor recalled.
Then Nail turned to Blevins and asked how much longer he had until retirement.
Blevins said it would be a few years before he bought the Winnebago that would take him and Wanda to the parts of America they had only imagined.
Connor savored Nail's quiet comeback.
"I believe I'll beat you," the mechanic said.
Central Alabama's Blue Creek seam holds what miners call the Cadillac of coals. Long-burning and low in sulfur, Blue Creek coal can be soft enough to crumble between your fingertips.
The lightweight, abundant fuel was formed hundreds of millions of years ago, when seismic shifts folded mountain peaks and mashed buried peat and plant sediment into brittle layers of jet-black coal.
The Blue Creek seemed a sure bet for Walter Industries in 1974.
The fast-growing Florida-based marketer of unfinished homes was pursuing its founder's vision of amassing a nationwide building trades and energy conglomerate. Borrowing heavily, Walter acquired marble quarries, steel foundries, chemical plants, aluminum mills and the nation's largest manufacturer of ductile iron water pipes.
Installing state-of-the-art British mining equipment, Walter executives in the 1970s predicted their Alabama coal division would be a cash cow, surpassing the earnings of all the company's other subsidiaries combined.
But the Blue Creek is tricky to mine.
The seam wrinkles and undulates, shrinking from 10 feet high to 4 before "pinching out" amid channels of shale and sandstone. Several feet above it lies a thinner seam, the Mary Lee. The strata between, a "middleman" of layered stone, can fracture easily.
In boom years the profits poured from the mine, but for a stretch in the mid 1990s, gas and fire problems forced No. 5 Mine to close, and production frequently fell short of company forecasts. Walter Industries in 1999 began trying to sell its Alabama coal operations, but there have been no takers.
The Jim Walter coal division accrued a grim safety record.
From 1992 through 2001, Jim Walter's three adjacent Alabama mines had more injuries per hour worked than 75 percent of the underground mines in the country, a Tribune analysis of federal records shows.
The mines were fined a total of $7.4 million for safety violations during that decade. Only one other mine in America was fined as much as any one of the three run by Jim Walter.
After Labor Department hearings, the Jim Walter fines were reduced by $3 million.
The company's No. 4 Mine had four deaths since 1995--more separate fatal incidents than any other U.S. coal mine during that period. MSHA issued citations for serious and substantial safety violations in every one of those four deaths as well as a fifth fatality at No. 5 Mine.
While working about the same number of hours, the veterans of No. 5 Mine produced 2 million tons of coal in 2000, nearly 25 percent more than in 1998. Walter officials say the mine's production improved because they used more-sophisticated technology and improved worker training.
But from 1998 to 2000, the rate of lost-time accidents--resulting in injuries that made a miner miss a shift--grew 50 percent, to 6.9 injuries per 200,000 hours worked.
"The safety started going downhill," said miner Roger Plowman.
Some 46 No. 5 miners were hurt seriously enough to lose time from work in 2000; 25 lost time due to injuries in 1997.
Walter Industries spokesman Kyle Parks said the company took a hard look at its safety practices in the mid-1990s, "and we've made some progress since then."
"We feel we've worked hard to make differences here," Parks said. "We've been upfront about how we feel these mines have significant safety challenges. But we feel we have made good progress as a company over the last three or four years."
While the mine's lost-days injury rate improved in the first part of 2001, other safety problems emerged.
In 2000 and the first part of 2001, federal inspectors cited No. 5 Mine three times for safety infractions that involved "high negligence." No such citations were issued in the three years before that.
Signs of trouble
In the four weeks before the Sept. 23 blasts, danger signs cropped up in the mine. The company was cited 10 times for accumulations of floating coal dust, seven times for ruptures in the ventilation system and five times for having sections of unsupported roof.
Three fires flared in No. 5 Mine in this period, compared to two in the 20 months before that, federal records show. The miners were directed immediately to their designated firefighting positions and rescued the coal with offhand courage.
"An ignition to us is just like you'd flip a cigarette lighter," Johnny Holleman said with a shrug. "Nobody gets crippled or killed."
As miners bore deeper into the earth, the gas they call "firedamp" leaks through fissures too thin to see. No. 5 Mine liberates from 13 million to 20 million cubic feet of the methane gas a day, federal records show. When the gas reaches 5 percent to 15 percent of the mine atmosphere, it can ignite with the tiniest spark.
In August, miners emptied at least 10 fire extinguishers as they labored for 25 minutes to douse a fire in the mine's newly developed 4 Section. One miner told federal inspectors his crew had been forced to stop working earlier in the shift when the methane swelled to dangerous levels.
The crew "gassed out," MSHA inspector Edward Nicholson scrawled on his notepad.
Examining the 4 Section in the wake of the fire, Nicholson took a gas reading and found a combustible level of methane in a roof niche. Miners quickly hung sheets of plastic and tin to redirect the air and sweep out the gas.
Five days later, a pocket of methane burst into flames in the 4 Section of the mine. Federal inspectors issued citations saying that exposed copper wire on a coal-cutting machine contributed to the fire.
On Sept. 20, the third methane fire flared for 10 minutes in an adjacent section of the mine. For the second time in six days, MSHA cited Jim Walter for having exposed wires on a roof-bolting machine involved in that fire.
Ray Milan said he fought that fire by stepping beneath a slab of roof that was not supported by hardwood beams or steel bolts.
"I knew it was wrong, but I'll take that kind of write-up to keep myself and my fellow workers alive," said Milan, a fourth-generation miner. "That mine has to make a dollar to keep me in a job. And my family needs me to have a job."
But fire was only one of the dangers.
Three days before the explosions, the clouds of dark coal powder stretched as long as 1,000 feet in the 4 Section.
Hanging in the air, the dark swaths will explode if sparked and leave hot, toxic fumes. "Nothing but gunpowder," miner Ricky Parker said.
To tamp down the powder and suppress explosions, mine operators are required to coat the tunnels with pulverized limestone "rock dust." Any sample of powder collected by a federal inspector should contain at least twice as much limestone as coal. The company says it was applying enough limestone.
But rock dusting takes manpower and can be expensive. Starting in the late 1990s, Jim Walter veteran Robert Tarvin said, the company "started cutting corners and cutting back."
"The company was putting down only touch-up," said Jerry Short, 53, Tarvin's rock-dusting partner. "They was taking shortcuts."
"Sometimes they had us dust just 30 minutes," instead of the hour or so it might take to dust an area properly, Tarvin said.
When co-workers would ask him why enough rock dust wasn't put down, "I'd tell them: I was told to do 30 minutes and I did exactly 30 minutes," Tarvin said.
Two thousand feet down, coal miners cherish fresh air. Ten-foot-diameter fans pull it through the corridors so rapidly that a miner sometimes can smell an orange peeled by a buddy in another section 2 miles away.
As he drove the rail car that carried timber roof supports into the 4 Section in the days before the blast, motorman John Wallace noticed that his glasses would fog up.
When he turned into the 4 Section, the ribbons that mark the escapeways stopped fluttering and hung straight down, Wallace said. "Something was wrong. There was not enough air."
Company spokesman Parks said there were no unusual problems with the mine's air flow during the weeks before the blast. "Ventilation issues have come up as the mine progressed forward," Parks said, "but we feel we have a good record of taking care of these things."
Three days before the blast, an inspector touring the 4 Section found holes in the walls of the ventilation system, as well as coal dust stretching more than 1,000 feet down the corridors. Jim Walter officials said they fixed the problem, but MSHA records show inspectors made no follow-up check.
Dissension in the ranks
Miners like Charlie Ogletree and Roger Plowman did not usually hoist timber beams for roof support.
They were part of the mine's elite coal cutting crew. On a normal day, they syncopate the $30 million "longwall" machines that shred the coal walls like black crepe paper.
Making successive sweeps across an 850-foot-wide working face, the longwall machine slants into the coal, its metal jaws shearing as much as 5 tons a minute. The machine leaves an empty corridor 12 feet high and nearly a mile long.
Hydraulic jacks press metal shields against the roof above. Clutching wrenches and rags, longwall crew members shimmy beneath the shields to service the gears that keep coal clattering onto the conveyer belts that carry it out of the mine.
Several days before the blasts, evening-shift longwall crew members said they took the unusual step of refusing to cut coal until the company reduced the gas from potentially combustible levels.
"The whole week prior, we stopped running coal," said crew member Matthew Wright, an 18-year mining veteran. "We shut her down. We didn't have enough air."
"They put us [to work] in the mud hole to punish us," Ogletree said.
Spokesman Parks disputed the miners' account and said the longwall crew members were reassigned to other duties as part of a routine deployment.
The longwall operation was being phased out in that section, Parks said. The company decided to cut coal on only two shifts, instead of the usual three.
"To our knowledge, no one refused to work on the longwall," Parks said. "There was no punishment or giving other tasks because of complaining. If they're not running the shift, you give them other things to do."
Six days before the explosions, MSHA inspector Sheila Dawkins visited the longwall section and found holes in the ventilation system walls as big as 74 inches high by 110 inches wide. Not enough air was coursing through, and combustible levels of methane were present. Dawkins issued an imminent danger order, and miners quickly hung curtains to channel the air flow and lower the methane level. "Management should have known of this condition," Dawkins wrote in her notes.
Longwall crew members said the first to stand up to management about the excess methane was 38-year-old Clarence "Bit" Boyd. The Brookwood High School football standout followed his four older brothers to work at Jim Walter mines.
The Sunday morning before that evening shift, Boyd and his brothers planted greens in a favorite hunting spot to draw deer when the discussion turned to the gas problems in the mine.
"I'll be honest with you, my brother was the type who would run in gas. He had for years," said his brother, Mike Boyd, who worked at No. 5 Mine. "We have to do this to survive."
But this time, Boyd said, his brother had had enough.
"He said they had been punishing them for refusing to run in gas."
Holleman said his childhood buddy Blevins told him that week that the evening shift longwall crew wouldn't run because of the gas.
Connor, who helped crew members repair the vent system in the week before the blast, said Boyd and Ogletree both told him at the time that they were being punished for refusing to cut in gas.
"If you refused to do your job because of it being unsafe, they'd set you to shoveling," Connor said.
"Workers got scared for their jobs and wouldn't bring up problems."
Questions about safety
After the other miners pulled out in teams to begin their shifts that Sept. 23, Randy Jarvis took his rail car to begin his solitary rounds.
The 49-year-old Jarvis was assigned to patrol "the bleeders," the abandoned corridors that lace the mined-out panels where the longwall has run. Strewn with rock and coal waste, the methane-exuding area will eventually be sealed with concrete.
"A lot of people don't like being by their selves like that," Jarvis said, "but it don't bother me."
The West Virginian began working underground at 21, despite the protests of his father, who was stricken with black lung disease.
Jarvis quickly became a foreman, but his home state's shrinking coal economy pulled the mine out from under him.
In a community college library, he studied a 500-page industry directory and mailed out resumes with self-addressed, stamped envelopes.
When Jim Walter gave him a chance to start as a bottom-rung laborer in 1996, Jarvis drove his family south and learned every job he could in the deep Alabama mine. He scooped coal dust and built vents, drove a rail car and hauled cable.
Jarvis started that Sunday shift as usual, toting in a duffel bag of clean work clothes. He made sure he had a pocket-size pad of the "work order" requests miners sometimes fill out in triplicate when they encounter dangerous conditions.
"I am a workaholic," the third-generation miner says, "and a stickler for safety.
"Blood was spilled to get the laws we have, and that's why I follow the laws."
`Drop and roll'
The first explosion rocked the 4 Section at approximately 5:15 p.m.
Mike McIe tumbled until he smacked to a halt against hard rock.
In the roiling gloom, McIe couldn't see his hands or feel the deep gash on his forehead. He didn't know he had three broken ribs. But he felt hot all over, like his clothes were on fire, and recalled a drill his 14-year-old daughter practiced at school.
"I remembered her telling me she'd learned to drop and roll," McIe would later say.
Snuffing the flames by pressing himself against sharp rock, the 52-year-old veteran miner stumbled to his knees. He could hear his partner moan in agony.
"Get up, Junior," McIe shouted.
"I can't," said Gaston Adams Jr.
Through the blood in his mouth, Adams said he could not feel his legs.
Staff reporter Geoff Dougherty contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times