Dispatcher Harry House sat alone in a spare booth on a hill above America's deepest coal mine.
Around him, video screens transmitted gloomy, subterranean images from the long coal tunnels a half-mile below. House's computers tracked air temperatures and gas concentrations. He was the miners' link to each other and to the outside world.
Settling in for a slow shift that Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001, House opened his lunch bucket and started to review printouts from the previous shift.
An alarm split the cloistered hush of House's booth as cryptic warnings spat from a computer terminal: "Alarm Port 01, Address 030, New 4 Section -- P/C and Drive."
The coded language signaled damage to an electrical power center in the remote corner of Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine called the 4 Section.
Fanned across the 12-square-mile mine, a crew of 32 men had been performing routine maintenance tasks when a rock fall in the 4 Section sparked a methane gas explosion. A small crew was pelted by stone and burned. Miner Gaston Adams Jr. couldn't move his legs.
The next 50 minutes became a desperate choreography as distant miners tried to gather information through the patchwork of telephone lines and loudspeakers that lace the mine.
In the worst U.S. mining accident since 1984, 13 men died when a second blast rocked the mine.
Federal mine safety records show persistent infractions at this top-producing mine, and lapses by the federal agency charged with inspecting it.
Jim Walter Resources mine officials say their operation was safe and the fatal blast did not stem from negligence. Surviving miners and families of the deceased have filed civil lawsuits claiming otherwise. Those suits are still in the early stages, and company officials said they have no merit.
Dispatcher House declined to comment for this article. While details are still emerging, the Tribune's account of the No. 5 Mine explosions is drawn from interviews with surviving miners, internal company records and reports from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, which is investigating.
Miners think little of fighting the fires that flare periodically in the underground corridors. But an explosion is different: The blast's concussive force can shut down the mine's ventilation system, allowing methane to build in the dead air and setting the stage for a second, larger explosion.
The question of what the dispatcher should do in an explosion is not spelled out in federal regulations or Jim Walter policies, the Tribune found. In retrospect, surviving miners say the dispatcher should have alerted all miners below that an explosion had occurred and launched an immediate evacuation.
Miners then could choose to ignore the peril and go toward the source of the explosion to rescue an injured co-worker--as they have time and again. "Let me make the choice if I'm going to put my life on the line," said miner Ricky Rose, a belt repairman who survived the disaster.
House told federal investigators that he consistently informed miners that there had been an explosion, according to a person familiar with his testimony. Some surviving miners corroborated House's account in interviews with the Tribune, saying the dispatcher gave them correct information.
But other miners say they were given misleading information or none at all as the disaster unfolded. Miners Thomas Connor and Lonnie Willingham say their crew had no contact with the dispatcher until after the second explosion, when Connor disregarded mine protocol and answered a page meant for foremen.
"They would have left us down there for dead," Willingham said.
Jim Walter officials would not comment on the details of the case but said the men below were properly directed. Miners will rush to save an injured comrade even if they know there has been an explosion, Jim Walter officials said.
As dust roiled the 4 Section seconds after the blast, miner Mike McIe and foreman Tony Key stumbled to Adams' side. They were too injured to carry him.
"Get help," Adams told them as he handed McIe the coal miner's most precious tool, his cap light.
That simple act would save three lives.
As McIe and Key limped up the track, Key found a yellow mine phone and mashed the buttons to reach House. In the hurried phone call, Key blurted out that there was a man down in an explosion in the 4 Section.
On one of the broad transportation tracks that run through the mine, Robert Tarvin and two partners had been spraying fire-retardant limestone powder on the coal.
When he felt the air thicken with dust, Tarvin assumed there had been a routine rupture in the tin and concrete-block ventilation system walls that Alabama miners call "brattices."
"It must be a brattice blowed out," Tarvin told his partner, Jerry Short.
But as Tarvin and Short walked back toward motorman John Knox, a mine door slammed behind them.
Tarvin paused as the wind reversed and began flowing back to the 4 Section, a sign of serious trouble with the ventilation system.
Knox didn't say a word. That was his way. The Hueytown (Ala.) High School football lineman rarely talked about the two seasons he wore jersey 64 for Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide and never proselytized his Christian faith. Miners sometimes found him alone in a rock chamber, bent in prayer before his shift.
Knox jumped on a "manbus"--the term miners use for the carts and the small rail cars they drive underground--and headed toward the likely source of the draft. "He was quiet and let his actions speak," motorman John Wallace said.
Short turned to Tarvin.
"Man, it's so dusty, you can't see," Short said.
"Something done happened," Tarvin said. "Let's get out of here."
They climbed aboard the truck-size locomotive that hauled their tanks of limestone dust and drove until they reached a phone between two central corridors.
Tarvin squeezed the phone's plastic handle and got dispatcher House.
"I asked, had anybody reported a brattice blowed out?" Tarvin said
The answer from House, he said, was yes.
House told him to clear the tanks from the track because miners were hurt and needed a path out, Tarvin said.
For reasons he can't explain, Tarvin felt something more dire was happening. He hung up the phone and told Short, "We got to get out of here."
The two jumped on the rock-dusting truck and headed toward "the cage," an elevator that takes miners to and from the surface.
Pages from the dispatcher
Ricky Rose was repairing a long rubber conveyor belt when he was startled by the blare of an "all-page" from the speaker secured to a timber post a few feet away.
Rose heard dispatcher House call for the foremen below.
House's tone told Rose something was wrong, but it's not a miner's place to answer a foreman's page, so he and his partners kept working.
When House paged a second time, Wendell Johnson picked up the phone, Rose said.
Johnson talked to House then turned to Rose and said: "We have an ignition on 4 Section. We need to quit what we're doing and clean up 4 Section."
Johnson made no mention of an explosion, according to Rose. When they jumped on a manbus, Rose and Johnson assumed they were going to fight a fire.
Down the corridor, miner Stuart Sexton heard the page for foremen and picked up the phone. After Sexton talked to the dispatcher, he rushed to find foreman Gene Robertson.
"There's a fire on the 4 Section, and they want every man there now," Sexton said, according to miners at the scene.
Abandoning their work, the men piled onto a manbus. Robertson threw it into gear and drove them toward the 4 Section. Along the track, they picked up others.
Taking his seat in the manbus, Vonnie Lee Riles remarked that they were going too far to fight an ordinary fire.
"There's something more to it than this," Riles told the men seated around him.
Johnson put his arm around Riles, Rose said.
"What's the matter?" Johnson asked Riles with a wry smile. "You afraid of dying?"
Behind their manbus came another, led by foreman Benny Franklin, who had picked up three miners.
Unlike the others, Franklin apparently knew there had been an explosion in the 4 Section. He "definitely used the word explosion," miner Charlie Ogletree said.
But, instead of evacuating, Franklin gathered his miners on a manbus and headed for the trouble spot.
On their way out of the mine, Tarvin and Short reached a rise in the road called Little Fault Hill. They saw a manbus coming at them fast. Tarvin blew his horn, and Short blinked his cap light to signal "Stop," but the oncoming car sped toward them.
"Who is this crazy Joe?" Tarvin said.
Foreman David Blevins screeched to a halt in front of Tarvin's car and hollered: "Where you going?"
"I'm getting out of here," Tarvin said.
"We have a fire on 4," Blevins said, according to Tarvin and Short. He told them to grab the fire extinguishers from their locomotive and get on his manbus.
As they picked up the fire extinguishers, Tarvin expressed misgivings to Short. "I know better than this," Tarvin said. "We don't have no business going up there. We have to get out."
But the coal mine veterans did as their foreman said, grabbing the fire extinguishers and jumping on Blevins' manbus as he took off.
"He was flying," Tarvin said.
'I ain't going no further'
Three of the miners closest to the initial blast--Mike McIe, Tony Key and Skip Palmer--stumbled to a manbus using Junior Adams' cap light to show them the way. They had to leave him in the ravaged 4 Section as they sought help.
Halfway between the blasted 4 Section and the elevator, they met the incoming crews, including Blevins.
The injured men "looked rough, like they been drug through hell backwards," miner Billy Hallman said.
Bleeding from the forehead, McIe clutched his broken ribs.
Palmer's head and hands were coated in blood, and his pants were torn.
Sexton had known foreman Key for years, but it took him a minute to recognize the burnt figure slumped in the manbus.
Key said he told foreman Blevins there was an explosion.
But surviving miners who dealt with Blevins during the unfolding drama said he acted as though they were facing a routine fire and never mentioned an explosion.
After talking with Key, Blevins turned back to his men and yelled for three volunteers to fight "a fire," miners at the scene said. Blevins shouted that they might have to use their self-rescuers--the heavy packs clipped to a miner's belt that supply up to an hour of oxygen.
Tarvin had fought plenty of fires before, and he didn't like the sound of this. Miners are instructed to use the self-rescuers for escape in life-threatening smoke. If the air in the distant section of the mine was that bad, a person might need every ounce of oxygen in the device simply to evacuate the deep mine.
"This is the furthest I am going," Tarvin announced. "I ain't going no further."
He put his hand on the shoulder of his partner, Jerry Short, and said: "You ain't going up there. You got no business going up there," miner Ricky Rose recalled.
Blevins trusted Short, a Kentucky-born mine veteran with experience and training putting out routine ignitions. He pleaded for Short to stay on the manbus and join the rescue crew.
"Come on Short. You're a firefighter," Blevins said.
Calling Short by his nickname, Tarvin said several times, "Blue, you better get off that bus," and Blevins said, "Blue, I need you."
Without a word, Short stepped down.
Three other miners--Raymond Ashworth, Joseph Sorah and Wendell Johnson--leapt into the empty seats.
As others headed toward safety with the injured men, Blevins gunned the engine and hurtled with his volunteers into the simmering dark.
Corkscrew of dust and rock
The second blast came at about 6:05 p.m., 50 minutes after the first.
From inside or near the 4 Section, it unleashed a furious power, blowing a crater in the mine that was 30 feet high and more than 50 feet long. The explosion spat balls of fire through the long corridors and up the 2,000-foot ventilation shaft.
In the subterranean chambers, methane gas explosions obey simple rules of thermochemistry.
When a mine is not properly ventilated, incendiary pockets of methane gas build while clouds of explosive coal dust float through the corridors like gunpowder. A spark that touches the deadly blend of methane and coal dust will trigger an explosion.
Shock waves can drive hot air through the tunnels at up to 500 miles per hour. More coal powder is lifted from the floor and walls and flung into dense clouds that fuel the inferno.
As pressure waves course through the long mine tunnels, they create a temporary vacuum. When the explosion stretches to its limit, the air pulls back to the source of the blast.
More than a mile from the second explosion, Rose felt the wind stop. It got "so quiet you could just about hear the blood running through your veins," Rose said. Then the wind reversed with a "rumble and roar like thunder."
Rose stared down the tunnel as a corkscrew of black dust and rock shot toward him. "It looked like a tornado slipping sideways," he recalled.
He was thrown against the rock but landed on his feet. In dust so thick he couldn't see, he heard someone yell: "Let's get out of here!"
Then again: "Let's get out of here!"
Standing at the switch more than a mile from the blast, Billy Hallman felt a tremor then heard a piercing whistle and a sudden roar. He was blown about 10 feet and came to his senses in a crouch facing a rush of gray silt. The explosion knocked Hallman into the stone wall and left his ears ringing.
Hallman, Short and Tarvin groped the mine floor for safety glasses and water canisters, then hooked their fingers around each other's belts and began the long walk toward the service elevator. Tarvin took the lead, his palms tracing the ravaged walls.
From his station 2 miles from the blast, Thomas Connor heard a series of mine doors open and slam shut in rapid succession, as if someone was racing through the passages.
The air came to a complete stop, then sucked back toward the 4 Section. Like a swimmer neck-deep in ocean surf, Connor grabbed a manbus to keep from being swept into the dusty undertow.
Assuming a routine rupture
Alone in a remote section of the mine, Randy Jarvis never heard the first blast. The second one "put me in mind of thunder," Jarvis said. When the air sucked back out, Jarvis' ears popped.
He figured there had been a routine rupture in one of the nearby "overcasts"--the ceiling panels that guide fresh air through the mine. He walked to a yellow mine phone and reached House.
"I said, `Did we have an overcast blow out?'" Jarvis recalled.
"He said, `Yeah, come out.'"
Before Jarvis could ask any more questions, House hung up, Jarvis said.
This didn't sound to Jarvis like an emergency. The dispatcher probably wanted the miners out so the company could decrease the air pressure and rebuild the overcast, Jarvis figured.
The dust was so thick that he could barely see a foot ahead, so he drove his manbus slower than he could have walked.
At Little Fault Hill, he saw two cap lights in the darkness ahead. It was Tarvin and Short. Then a third light: miner Billy Hallman had turned to face him.
When Jarvis finally pulled up, they clambered into his manbus.
The dispatcher told him an overcast had blown out, Jarvis said.
"That was the second explosion," Tarvin said, "and we need to get the hell out."
"The second explosion?" Jarvis asked.
Working his way toward the voices of his fellow miners, Rose could barely see even with his cap light on. "It was like your eyes were closed," he said.
He found a manbus and felt for the ignition. As the machine roared to life, the miners around him jumped on, and Rose switched on the head lamps. He could see only inches into the dust, but he raced forward anyway.
"It was survival time," Rose said.
He drove full tilt until they reached the elevator.
During the three-minute ride, the miners stared between their boots, through metal grating of the elevator floor. "We were looking for the fire to come up the shaft and blow us clean to kingdom come," Rose said.
Connor's crew was the last to burst aboveground. The twilight was slashed by red, white and blue emergency lights. There were ambulances and police squad cars, two helicopters and firetrucks from Brookwood and Vance.
Someone shouted: "The mine exploded."
Connor realized the gravity of what he had been through, and his knees buckled. Another miner grabbed his arms and asked: "Was anyone underground you don't see here?"
Connor focused on the faces of the evening shift miners lined around him, his mind reeling as he tallied up the 13 left below.
About 7:30 p.m., two eight-member rescue squads stood in the foreman's office aboveground and studied an intricate map of the buried city of coal. A squad leader asked whether anyone had any reservations about going in. No one spoke up.
Strapping on protective masks, members of the first team entered the mine at 8:03 p.m. and called from the bottom three minutes later, according to squad members' handwritten notes.
Proceeding cautiously, they took an hour and 10 minutes to work their way to a juncture where the coal walls smelled of smoke.
At 9:37 p.m., the air around them thickened from gray to brown. Tin brattices were wadded like Kleenex, and rail car tracks had curled in the heat.
They saw a blackened motorcar lying on its side. Nearby were a green water jug and an oxygen mask. A broken pipe was spitting water in the air. A live electric cable lay across the track.
Then squad member Mark Aldridge spotted a burned man leaning against the rock wall. It was Raymond Ashworth, 53, a veteran miner who had answered Blevins' call for rescue volunteers. He apparently had dropped back behind the rescue crew to patch a water line so his fellow miners could fight the fire.
He was barely alive. In the dim light, Ashworth's clothes did not seem burned, but his skin was like melted tar.
Down the track, a squad member called out: "Two more up here!"
The bodies of Wendell Johnson and Joe Sorah were sprawled by a manbus. A squad leader identified the men from the brass tags on their belts and serial numbers on their cap lights.
The squad's mission was to find any survivors, not retrieve the dead, so they covered the bodies with plastic ventilation curtains.
In water and debris beneath a manbus, a squad member found another miner's belt, then his body. It was Blevins. His helmet lay in three pieces. Somewhere nearby, a fire suppression alarm was beeping.
The squad split again, into twos. As one pair looped through scorched tunnels, another pair encountered fire. They emptied their fire extinguishers then decided to regroup.
Two thousand feet aboveground and 30 miles away, in the tiny Alabama hamlet of Laceys Chapel, Junior Adams' wife, Sarah, walked home from an evening church gathering. The phone was ringing as she opened the door about 8:30 p.m.
A family friend told her: "There's been an explosion at the mine."
As the house filled with concerned friends who crowded around the television, someone got through to the mine on the phone. "They were saying they couldn't give us any information," said Adams' 31-year-old daughter, Rhonda Adams. "It was breaking news on TV and they said, `My advice to you is to go to the union hall.'"
The family of foreman David Blevins drove to the mine with 34-year-old David Jr. in the front seat chanting the words "Oh dear God" and Blevins' wife, Wanda, in the back saying, "Dave might be hurt, but that's all there is to it. He knows what to do. My David knows his job."
At the bottom of the employee parking lot, Wanda Blevins ran to the mine gate, but a company official told her to stand by the fence.
"My husband is in there!" she yelled.
It started raining shortly after 10:30 p.m. As a throng gathered at the mine, Wanda Blevins could see her husband's car in the supervisors' lot below. She knew his jacket was in the back seat and wanted to feel its oversize warmth.
She saw a woman weeping. "Do you have someone down there?" she asked. "My husband," Kathy Ashworth said.
A woman in the crowd gave them an umbrella.
Ashworth's son unhitched the tailgate of his father's pickup truck so the miners' wives could have a place to sit.
At 11:28 p.m., the rescue squad put Raymond Ashworth on the elevator up.
A company official ran up to the gate and called out, "Mrs. Ashworth? They've located your husband."
Kathy Ashworth sobbed with joy.
"He is burned, and they're airlifting him out," the official said.
As Kathy Ashworth headed toward the blinking lights, Wanda Blevins turned to David Jr. "I don't care if your dad is burned," she said. "Maybe we'll get lucky. Maybe we'll be next."
Helicopter blades slapped the air above as Kathy Ashworth saw the image that would sear her heart. Her husband did not have ears to hear her voice. He died in a Birmingham hospital later that afternoon.
One of the rescue squad members approached David Blevins' best friend, mine supervisor Raymond "Johnny" Holleman.
"I found your buddy," the squad member said.
Holleman knew what that meant. He walked over to Wanda Blevins.
"Is Dave coming home?" she asked.
Holleman couldn't find the words.
"I said, `Let's hope so. Let's don't give up hope,'" he said.
At the mine training center, Betty Riggs found her husband's friend, Jerry Short. Before she could ask about her husband, Sammy, Short shook his head and stared at the floor. His eyes stung and could not meet hers.
A woman came to the gate shouting: "Mrs. Blevins? Mrs. Blevins? Come down to the office. They're waiting on you."
Finally, the guard let Wanda Blevins through. In the dry, well-lit building, she realized she was shaking and had a pounding headache.
There would be no survivors
Local chaplains gathered with company officials at 1:25 a.m., and there was "discussion on how to talk to families," an internal mine company log shows. Jim Walter officials gathered the miners' families in a company training center for a briefing.
Mine official Richard Cates pointed to a map with a stick and described the progress of the rescue squad in an upbeat voice, the miners' families recalled. An hour later, he said: "No new news." Then in another hour, shaking his head: "I have nothing else to tell you all."
At 5:15 a.m. Monday, mine company records show, a friend of miner Dennis Mobley--one of the men still unaccounted for--called Jim Walter officials to say Mobley's family had received no notification from anyone about the problem at the mine. Was Dennis all right?
With methane gas and carbon monoxide at dangerous levels, company officials ordered the imperiled rescue squad to retreat about 6:20 a.m.
Cates called the families together and laid a legal pad and pen on the table in front of him, miners' relatives said. Things were looking grim, Cates told them. There would be no survivors.
Cates asked the families to write their names and phone numbers on the pad.
It was late in the morning when company, union and government officials began making the rounds, taking off their hats before they knocked on widows' doors.
Grim recovery work
Over the next seven weeks, recovery teams worked around the clock to retrieve the dead. With the ventilation system knocked out, the temperatures reached nearly 100 degrees and methane accumulations built to 80 percent.
The bodies of Blevins, Sorah and Johnson were brought up Nov. 3. Five days later, miners stood by in tribute as the last nine were carried up. They had asphyxiated and their bodies were burned and battered, medical reports show. Families held memorial services in Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
For months, Ricky Rose was torn awake by nightmares. When he slept until morning, Rose sometimes stumbled into his driveway and called out his usual greeting to his next-door neighbor, friend and co-worker:
Ashworth hadn't made it out.
A Kentucky boy who rebelled against the Baptist preaching of the grandfather who raised him, Rose groped for his lost faith. "I took a long look at myself," he said. "I thank God for the second chance."
In December, he went back to the mine as workers prepared it for a June reopening.
When the company asked for volunteers to repair the blast-damaged sections, Rose stepped forward, and recovery squad members drove him in.
The roof was cracked and caked with soot. Roof bolts protruded where rock was sheared by fire. "There was a sickly, deathly smell," Rose said.
Squad members pointed to where the dead were found and called out their names.
You could see the indentations of something on the ground, but you couldn't make out what," Rose said.
At one intersection, Rose thought he heard Wendell Johnson's voice, but it was only the wind in the long tunnels. He crumpled in tears against a stone wall.
They didn't suffer
As the 4 Section was rebuilt, motorman John Wallace ferried a decontamination sled to the damaged area, bringing in detergent rinses and plastic gloves. Wallace wasn't underground that Sept. 23--he had taken the shift off--but seeing the claw-sweep of devastation for the first time, he felt relief wash over him.
It was done in an instant, he saw. They didn't suffer.
As he drove back a second time, a more troubling emotion set in. Wallace said he started thinking about "the ventilation problems, the history of ignitions, and just overall lack of management accepting its responsibilities.
"I realized that those 13 people died for absolutely nothing."
A pungent smell lay on the rock ribs for months after the blast. Then in the spring of this year, miners shaved the rock to regrade the floor, replace tracks and rebolt the roof, and it was easy to breathe again.
Jim Walter officials said that in the aftermath of the disaster they installed steel cases to protect battery chargers in the mine from rock falls. But they said they have had to make no other significant modifications in their safety plans and practices.
Miners say sweeping improvements have been made.
"Now it's a whole lot changed," Short said. "They keep it cleaner. Nobody runs in methane like they did before."
"We got a lot more air now," longwall miner Matthew Wright said.
Thick coats of fire-retardant limestone powder are being applied to the mine walls, Tarvin said. "They want to white it up."
Federal inspectors, said miner Ray Milan, are "coming hard and writing up things that should have been looked at years ago."
Families are bitter
Two days after the blast, Jim Walter's Florida-based parent company issued a press release announcing a trust fund for the 13 miners' families. Coal miners, area businesses and residents poured in some $640,000.
Company officials promised to match the donations and say they intend to do so, but that has not happened yet.
Each of the 13 families was sent a $20,000 check from the trust fund around Thanksgiving. And an additional $13,000 was given out in response to specific requests.
Under their husbands' union contracts and Alabama workers compensation laws, the widows received benefits that included $100,000 in life insurance payments, weekly checks of $549 for 500 weeks, two months worth of miners' salaries, and insurance coverage. But as they struggled alone with medical bills and mortgage payments, several of the wives said in anger that donations given on their behalf were being held by the company's trust fund.
Walter Industries spokesman Kyle Parks said the company decided to create a tax-exempt charity so that all contributions could be tax deductible. "After we put the paperwork in motion" to create a charity, Parks said, company officials discovered that the beneficiaries of a charity must include a larger group than 13 specific families. The company then expanded the beneficiaries to include all Alabama coal mine workers, Parks said.
Parks said the company did not mislead people when it said donations would be matched by the company and given to the 13 families.
Parks said the company plans to match the $640,000, after an additional payment of $29,000 is made to each of the 13 families. Those matching funds would be used for future Alabama mining disasters.
In an August letter, Jim Walter officials offered to give the widows that $29,000 if they would sign papers agreeing not to sue over how the trust has been handled. Betty Riggs, whose husband, Sammy, died in the blast, is one of several widows who said she does not intend to sign the papers.
"The company used the trust fund in a manipulative way to paint a pretty picture for the public and the press," Riggs said. "Suffering families were exploited."
Janice "Cookie" Nail, who cares for a disabled adult son, struggles to make the mortgage payments on her home.
"Nobody ever calls to say, `Are you all right? Are you making it?'" she said.
After encountering a mine machine he couldn't fix, Charlie Nail would sit in the living room and study the schematics and technical manuals he borrowed from friends and relatives. He and Janice talked or enjoyed the evening's quiet as she sat across from him, stitching his Liberty overalls.
"I'd give anything," she said, "if I could patch them again."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times